A Spectrum Halloween story
By Marion Woods
I believe cats to be spirits come to earth. A cat, I am sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through.
Being on duty when Cloudbase was in festive mood was always considered ‘bad luck’, although Lieutenant Flaxen often thought that she actually preferred it. She was not at her best in social gatherings and experience had taught her that if it was possible for something to go wrong, it invariably went wrong for her. On the other hand, she liked feeling that her inadequacy was actually being put to good advantage by obliging her colleagues and so she rarely refused an appeal to swap shifts.
Halloween was always a bit of a lottery anyway. So many strange things had happened, or were reported to have happened, over the years that she felt safer in the Control Room doing the routine checks and reports as if it was just any other day – and night. She had managed to swap both night shifts this year, and it was approaching 23:00 hours when the command changeover was due.
Captain Grey was packing away his things and was ready to sign the command of Cloudbase over to his replacement.
Lieutenant Gentian arrived three minutes before the shifts changed, saluted and listened to Grey’s duty summary in silence before watching the captain leave to join the Halloween party, taking place this year in the main lecture theatre.
He sat down and logged on to the console before he glanced up at Flaxen and said, “You’re here for both shifts, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, sir. Lieutenant Claret is on ground leave and Lieutenant Green wanted to go to the party; he’d got an amazing costume and he was sure he’d win a prize. I don’t mind working through, I have the whole day free tomorrow as a result.”
“Well, that’s nice. I got suckered by Captain Ochre, who should be here by rights. My own fault: I should know by now never to play poker with him.” Gentian gave a wry smile. “Mind you, I was banking on the colonel refusing to authorise the duty change, but this month’s management drive is on ‘empowering the junior ranks’ – which is just my luck.”
“You’ve been in command before though, haven’t you?” Flaxen asked, sliding her chair closer to the command desk so she could talk to Gentian without having to raise her voice.
“Oh, aye; I’ve driven the base before now, but usually from engineering control and in tandem with one of the captains up here. Seems like I’ve progressed to being one of the ‘big boys’ now and am deemed worthy of driving her on my own.”
Flaxen chuckled. “I know that feeling. I’m usually only allowed to man main Comms when there’s no-one else available.”
“Well, let’s just keep her on a steady, true course and we’ll both do our career prospects no harm.”
Thankfully, things continued to be quiet: Flaxen had already finished the routine base reports and was three-quarters of the way through the colonel’s morning update, when the door to the Control Room opened again. She glanced round and saw a short, chunky figure on the automatic walkway, carrying a small tray on which two mugs and plates piled with nibbles were rather precariously balanced.
“Hiya, Aud,” Philippa Daniel called cheerfully.
“What’re you doing here, Philly?” Flaxen replied, casting a wary glance at Gentian. To her relief he did not seem too perturbed by the arrival of their unexpected visitor.
Philly didn’t reply until she had negotiated the end of the walkway successfully and placed the tray down on the Console Panel. “I’ve brought you some nosh from the party, before it all got et. It in’t fair that you miss out on the goodies as well as the party.” She grinned at Gentian. “Besides, I know you’re partial to gingerbread, Eoin, and it’s brilliant this year.”
“That’s kind of you, Philly,” Gentian replied, reaching out to steady the tray with one hand as he removed one of the plates before it toppled off the top of the mug.
Flaxen shook her head, wondering why she should be surprised that Philly not only knew Gentian’s first name, but was on terms with him that allowed her to use it. Philly knew everyone on Cloudbase, liked almost all of them and was liked in return. All Flaxen knew about Gentian was that Eoin Macaslan was Scottish by birth, a tall, dark-haired man with a rugged face and deep voice, who had been an engineer of some kind before he joined Spectrum.
She also knew that he was one of the most well-respected of the corps of ‘field lieutenants’ who accompanied the colour captains on missions when necessary. They were a disparate bunch, often experts in specific fields, or well-experienced officers from other military forces who could add their expertise to the captains’ own skills if needed.
As Philly carried the tray down to her, she smiled gratefully at her friend who placed it carefully on the edge of the Comms desk and grinned back with delight.
“I know it’s awfully important up here,” Philly said, “but I’ve only been here once and I thought it would be nice to remind myself how it looks. The Captain said it would be okay if I brung it to you, as long as I didn’t get in the way or touch anything.”
“You’re never in the way, Philly,” Gentian said. “Why don’t you take a seat and tell us all the gossip about the party? Did Captain Blue win a prize for his costume?”
“No, but he should’ve!” Philly, ever the champion of her beloved captain, went on to explain as she settled herself on the stool beside the Console Desk: “He’d got this huge, black cape-thing – got his mum to send it from Boston – and a mask without any face on it, that covered half of his face. He said he was the Phantom of the Opera, and he looked dead like it! When I saw it at the theatre that’s just what it looked like. So, I think he should’ve won.”
“Who did win?” Flaxen asked, nibbling appreciatively at a chunk of the ‘brilliant’ gingerbread.
“Green and Rhapsody. Mind you, how she could breathe in that dress she had on, I don’t know. Lord help her if she sneezes, all that lacing’ll snap. Maybe that’s why she won? The officers were all hoping she’d fall out of her frock and they’d see…”
Flaxen hastily interrupted her: “I’m glad Green won; he had his heart set on it.”
“Was it a good party?” asked Gentian simultaneously, in order to stifle a guffaw.
“Yeh, it was. I got to dance with The Captain and Captain Ochre. I told him he should’ve been dancing with you, Aud, instead of leaving you up here all night; but you know Ochre, he brushed me off with one of his grins.” She glanced conspiratorially at Flaxen who tried hard to look disinterested and failed. Philly continued, “I told Green as well when I danced with him. He said he thought I was probably right. I like Seymour, he plays things fair. I din’t say it to the colonel though, so don’t think I’ve got you into any trouble, Aud.”
“You danced with the colonel?” Flaxen gasped.
“No, I can’t do his sort of dancing – like they do it on the telly - he danced with Miss Congeniality herself. But I was chatting to him when he came for a drink at the refreshments. He’s such a nice man.”
“Miss Congeniality?” Gentian asked, somewhat bewildered.
“That’s what Philly calls Symphony Angel, although she shouldn’t, because if it gets out she’ll be the one in trouble,” Flaxen explained, giving her friend a warning glance.
This time Gentian did laugh out loud. “Oh that’s a wonderful name for her, Philly.”
Philly grinned and joined in with his laughter. “She can be a right misery at times, but as far as The Captain’s concerned the sun shines out of her – although I haven’t worked out where from yet…”
“Oh, I think I know,” Gentian responded, with a broad wink that sent Philly into paroxysms of giggles.
“You two are dreadful!” Flaxen cried, before laughing along with them both.
As calm was restored Gentian asked Philly, “So, has the dancing finished?”
“Yeh; they’re sitting down telling scary tales now; them as is still off duty.”
“Didn’t you want to listen to them? Some of those stories can be quite good,” he said.
“Well, I sort of did but I was more wanting to bring you some of the gingerbread and a nice cup of coffee with it. I didn’t bring you any of the ‘Blood Punch’ as they were calling it this year. It tasted just like tomato juice to me.” She pulled a face.
“No, the gingerbread goes much better with coffee,” Flaxen agreed. “Thanks, Philly.”
“I tell you what, Philly, I can tell you a story – a true story – if you want,” Gentian offered.
“Oh, please, Eoin! I remember that one you told last year, it gave me goosebumps everywhere.”
“Well, I can’t promise this will be as good, but if you’re sitting comfortably?” Philly nodded emphatically. “Then I’ll begin.”
I went to university in Glasgow and while I was there, I met an Englishman who was studying the same subjects. I will call him John Smith, because as I said, this is a true story. John and I became good friends and we shared digs for quite a while. When we graduated we kept in touch and met up once a year or so, when our work took us to the same place. We had a lot in common and neither of us were married; in fact I came to think of us both as confirmed bachelors, although we were never without female companionship when we sought it.
Then, about two years before I joined Spectrum, I got a letter from John telling me that he had met the most wonderful woman and they were to be married. He told me that she was alone in the world and as his parents had died when he was at University, they had decided not to wait, but to have a small, quiet wedding. Although I was not invited to it, he asked me to go and stay with them once they’d set up home so I could meet his beloved.
Well, with one thing and another, I never got round to it. I still heard from John and it sounded as if everything was perfect with his marriage. He was devoted to his fair Chloe and so was she to him, from all accounts. They had moved to the west of England, in a very rural area where they could enjoy the country life. He worked on projects across the UK and – indeed – around the globe, so sometimes we ran into each other, much as we always had done. The only cloud on the horizon - that he told me about anyway - was that they had no children, but he seemed determined not to let this spoil their happiness.
When I knew I was going to be joining Spectrum, I contacted John to say I was sorry that I wouldn’t see him at the Toronto Convention that year because I was starting a new job and wouldn’t be on the usual circuit while it lasted. He emailed back and encouraged me to pay my postponed visit to their home and to meet for the first time, Mrs Smith. I had nothing better to do until I went for my basic training with Spectrum, so I agreed.
I travelled down to their home, which was a large and very pleasant country house, set in beautiful grounds and surrounded by rolling hills and a wee valley that led down to the sea. The weather was idyllic and I couldn’t imagine anywhere better to spend my last few civilian days.
They had another guest staying with them, a man I knew slightly from our student days. John mentioned to me that he’d recently met him again while working for a big company on a project. Let’s call him Tom Brown. Tom was a very good looking man, always very popular with the ladies and intelligent and convivial enough, but in my opinion, he had always been a rather nervous and fanciful character, with a bit of a persecution complex and he didn’t seem to have changed much.
His latest sense of injustice had arisen because he was allergic to cats and his new neighbours had arrived with two kittens. The animals would clamber onto his balcony and one actually got into his flat, which had led to some kind of fracas and the police being called, I think. That’s why he was staying with our mutual friends until he could take possession of a new apartment in an apparently cat-less location.”
Even the presence of Tom Brown couldn’t spoil my pleasure at seeing my friend and I was delighted to see that everything John had told me about his wife was true. Chloe Smith was a charming woman, very beautiful with an elegant, slim build, a mass of black hair and very clear, pale skin. Her eyes were wide set and almost amber in colouring – which was an arresting sight. She moved very quietly, spoke with a soft, yet rather deep voice and had very white teeth when she smiled. I could quite see why John was infatuated with her. I might’ve become so myself, except she was my friend’s wife and I was their guest – and I do have my principles.
Chloe Smith was a charming hostess, but it didn’t take long for me to realise that she was also quite the most self-centred and laziest person I think I’ve ever met. John employed two women from the nearest village to come and clean, do the shopping, cook and keep house, while Chloe, who was supposed to be ‘an artist’, spent her days lounging in comfortable armchairs and sunning herself in the garden. All the time I was there, I never saw her so much as put a brush into paint or lift a pencil to sketch. But John didn’t seem to mind and anything and everything Chloe wanted, Chloe got.
Then John was called away by an emergency at one of his work projects and he was going to be away for a few days. I said I would leave, but he insisted that I stay on with Chloe and Tom, and I wondered if he was suspicious that there might be something going on between the two of them. Chloe seemed very drawn to Tom and she would take every chance to sit beside him and – in my eyes, at least – flirt outrageously with him. John couldn’t have failed to notice, so out of loyalty to my friend, I said I would stay and see him when he got back, before I left.
He drove away after taking his breakfast, leaving just the three of us. It was a beautiful day and I was keen to see more of the countryside, so I suggested a drive out in my car, which was the kind with a roll down top. Chloe and Tom sat in the back while I drove, and in the rear view mirror, I could see her almost draping herself over him as she watched the countryside go by on either side. We ate at a pub by a quiet beach and she became fascinated by a small flock of wading birds that were darting about in the wavelets, searching for food. When we got back to the house, she draped herself on a couch and insisted that Tom read her some poetry. I’d had enough pretty quickly and left them to it, although it wasn’t too long after I’d gone upstairs that I heard the door of Chloe’s room, along the corridor, close. That was followed a few minutes later by Tom’s door, which was next to mine.
That night the garden was invaded by cats. They were yowling and prowling around the garden, making so much noise it woke me up, and let me tell you, I sleep like the dead. I looked out of the window and in the bright moonlight saw three of them, although I suspected there were more in the bushes and trees. One tabby, one long-haired Persian type and a sleek, black cat. I was watching them chasing each other, when I saw Tom open his bedroom window and yell curses at them. When that had no effect, he threw a boot at the tabby. It missed, but the cats romped off making more noise than ever.
Now, I knew he disliked cats, but they were outside and doing him no harm, so I thought he was being very foolish. I shut the window and went back to bed and soon enough the yowling stopped. I heard the window shut in the next room and peace returned.
Chloe wasn’t with us at breakfast the next morning. This wasn’t unusual; as I said, she was very lazy and would often have her breakfast in bed. So I took the opportunity to tell Tom that I thought he’d been over-reacting. He got very defensive and said that before I’d arrived, while John had been away in London, the cats had spent every night in the garden and got into the house. Despite asking Chloe to do something to get rid of them she hadn’t done a thing, until one evening he’d found one of them sitting on his open bedroom windowsill and the black cat curled up on his bed.
He’d gone looking for her to insist that he had to change rooms because of his allergy; but he hadn’t been able to find her and so he’d spent the night on the sofa. When she got up the next day, she’d been quite unsympathetic and saw no need to move him from what she said ‘was the nicest room in the house’. Apparently, she liked cats and positively encouraged them. They’d barely spoken after that for the rest of the day until John had come back later with the news that I was on my way to stay. He’d arranged for Tom to move rooms. So I was now in the room he’d used before I arrived. I wondered how the cats had got up into the bedrooms; then I remembered there was a wisteria vine that grew between the windows, but was closer to my window. Presumably, they’d climbed up that.
When Chloe got up, she moved from the arduous task of lying in bed to lounging in the garden on a sunbed, while the housekeeper bought drinks and treats out for her. I suggested we walk or drive down to the beach again, where it would be fresher, but she didn’t want to go and made such a face when Tom said he’d go with me that he agreed to stay and I thought I’d better stay too. I don’t think I was very popular as she barely spoke to me – or Tom – and spent most of the day fiddling with a few twigs and a small white pebble she’d found – you know the kind that have quartz in them and sparkle in sunshine?
Tom dozed the day away, presumably tired out by the cats in the night incident and I read a book, which was enjoyable in its way, but I’d have rather been down at the beach and out of the oppressive heat.
That lunchtime, we ate a meal of cold meat and salad out on the patio and I could almost feel the pressure building; as the sun started to set, the sky suddenly grew a strange bronze-colour. I went indoors and took a shower to freshen up, hoping I’d be able to sleep that night.
Because I was conscious now that the cats could get into the rooms and aware that Tom really was terrified of them, when I went to bed early, I only opened my window a fraction and locked it like that. I lay and listened to the radio which crackled and distorted so frequently I was sure that there was a thunderstorm about. In the warm, summer twilight I left my curtains open and I must’ve dosed off for some time, because it was dark when I woke.
I could hear the cats again and when I looked out of my window, sure enough they were in the garden again, four of them this time.
When the moonlight shone between the heavy clouds, the noise grew louder as if more cats had joined in, but it was too dark to see much detail, so I went back to bed. I heard a thud against the windowpane and sat up to see the tabby on the outside windowsill, scrabbling at the partially open window. I shooed it away and it jumped down onto the wisteria branch and vanished into the dense tangle of rich amber-coloured leaves – the perfect camouflage for its fur.
I could hear Tom yelling and screaming in the room next door, as he tried to scare the animals away, but they ignored him and simply paraded, backs arched and tails upright, along the garden wall, as if they owned the place. I was quite amused and felt that the cats definitely had the upper hand, but I was sorry for Tom, who was getting close to hysterical, so I opened my window as wide as it would go and leant out to try and shoo the animals away.
At that very moment the storm broke and great fat raindrops poured down from the heavens, pelting the ground so hard that small craters were left in the soil. Peel after peel of thunder rolled around the enclosing hills, so that you could hardly tell where one echo faded and another peel began. Lightning zigzagged across the sky, its blinding brilliance throwing the dark clouds into fluffy silver cushions.
The first lightning flash clearly showed the cats on the wall but by the second they’d all vanished. The wind rose to near gale force and the trees bent low in its wake. Somewhere in the house I heard a door slam shut, followed by the less emphatic sound of a window closing. I assumed Tom had retreated into his room, closing the window to avoid the rain and believing the cats would leave for the night rather than stay out in such bad weather.
I was startled when all of a sudden, the black cat leapt from nowhere onto my window sill and scratching fiercely, attempted to enter the room. I reacted instinctively and jumped backwards, falling onto my bed. The cat leapt from the windowsill and landed beside me for a second. I could see that it was wet and its paws were muddy from the flower beds. It gave me a very cursory and wholly indifferent glance before leaping again and running out of the room through the door, which had blown open in a squall of high wind.
Moments later I heard Tom scream and I struggled to my feet, partly in shock. Part of me knew that however much he feared them, the cats wouldn’t harm Tom if he left them alone, but I knew him well enough to know that his fear of them was irrational and that he might well succumb to some sort of hysterical seizure. Reluctantly, I decided that I must go and ‘rescue’ him.
It was then I heard the shot. I stood there in total shock as two more cats scrambled through the window and, yowling like banshees, raced off in the same direction as the black cat had taken. I was frozen to the spot for a moment until the yowling seemed to change to an unearthly kind of wailing. I guessed that Tom had tried to shoot the black cat and probably in his hysteria, missed and wounded the animal. Cursing as I ran to his room, I noticed that Chloe’s door was still shut fast and she had not even bothered to come and investigate the gun shot.
Tom’s door was ajar and I pushed it open. I can hardly describe the scene of utter mayhem that lay before me. Two cats had Tom cornered close to the closed window and he was cowering, hunkered down, weeping, his hands over his head as they spat and snarled. He was naked. In one hand he was holding a gun.
The bed sheets were crumpled, the coverlet on the floor and sprawled across it, stark naked, lay Chloe Smith - a bullet wound in her chest. Her blood, which had pooled onto her stomach, was starting to trickle down and soak into the bedding. Her body was an almost ethereal white and as another flash of lightning illuminated the room, I could clearly see a sheen of water covering her. Her body and her black hair were soaking wet: she was dead.
There was silence for some time after Gentian stopped speaking and then Philly breathed, “Oh wow,” in a whisper. “She was the black cat!”
Gentian replied: “Well, Tom certainly told the police that he had shot at the cat, not at Chloe, in fact he said he had no idea what she was doing on his bed in a state of undress.”
Flaxen gave a snort. “Did they believe him?”
Gentian didn’t reply directly. “I was called to give a statement and I have to say that they remained sceptical at best. They found no body of a black cat in the room or anywhere in the house and it appears that Chloe’s bed had not been slept in. So, the question was ‘where had she been and why was she naked in Tom’s bedroom’?”
“They were lovers,” Flaxen said confidently. “You said she flirted with him and her husband already had doubts about her.”
“John told the police that he trusted her implicitly. You only have my impression that he suspected them.”
“She was all wet, so she must’ve been out in the rain, as the cat,” Philly said emphatically.
“Philly,” Flaxen protested at the absurdity of this statement.
Gentian shrugged. “Is that what you think, Philly?”
Wide-eyed, she nodded. “Did her husband know she was really a cat? Did he believe Tom thought he was shooting the black cat?” she asked.
“I don’t know what he believed. He would never talk about it.”
“Who did this mystical black cat belong to?” asked Flaxen, far more sceptically.
“No one knew anything about it, it didn’t seem to belong to anyone who lived locally. But it was too well cared for to be a stray or a feral beast. And it wasn’t an hallucination - before you ask, Flax – it was real; I saw it for myself,” Gentian replied. “As far as I know, it was never seen again after Chloe’s death.”
Flaxen asked, “What happened to Tom?”
“Detained under His Majesty’s pleasure in a psychiatric hospital. He’s still there and will probably never come out.”
“Oh, that’s so sad!” Philly cried. “She was wicked to torment him knowing he hated cats.”
“Philly, don’t be such a goose,” Flaxen said, smiling at her. “That can’t possibly be true. I’m sure Eoin’s only teasing us, aren’t you?”
Gentian gave another shrug but did not reply immediately. “I said it was a true story; I leave it up to you to decide if I’m telling the truth.”
“I believe you, Eoin,” Philly declared. “Cats are known to be magical animals, with all sorts of powers. Witches have them as their pets because of it! I believe that woman was the cat and she came to tempt Tom while her husband was away.”
Flaxen glanced a little censoriously at Gentian, as if to blame him for setting Philly’s all too vivid imagination working overtime. He returned her look with a calm smile but did not react.
There was a subtle bleep from the Comms console and Flaxen said, “That’s Spectrum: London’s midnight report, I’d better answer. Can you take the mugs and plates back, Philly? It was very nice of you to bring us the cake and coffee, but we don’t want the colonel to find out we’ve been slacking. I’ll see you for lunch tomorrow? I plan to have a nice long lie in when I get off duty…”
Philly nodded and set about tidying up.
“Happy Halloween, Philly,” said Gentian when the young woman had gathered the plates and empty mugs.
“Same to you, Eoin, and thanks for the story, it was great! I bet nothing they heard at the party was half as good as that!”
He watched her leave and turned to see Flaxen still looking sceptically at him.
“Happy Halloween, Aud,” he said, and bent his head to the read the latest on-screen report.
Something fluffy for Halloween!
My profound thanks go to Skybase Girl for beta-reading this at short notice. She did a grand job and any mistakes, plot holes and inanities are all mine!
Hope you enjoyed it.
29 October 2014
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