Elliot pulled his shifts that week like always-twenty-four on and forty-eight off-and paid bills and shopped for groceries. But he had the growing conviction that he had lost his daughter for good.
It wasn't until Saturday evening, after another foiled attempt to call Annie, that he realized she might have written to him. He hunted for the mail key for twenty minutes before unearthing it from a basket on the hall table.
A long summer twilight had succeeded the torturously searing day, and the first cool wind of the evening rose as he walked down the hill to the P.O. box. The creek that ran under the road at that point was surprisingly full considering how hot it had been lately.
Elliot extracted a week's worth of mail from the jammed box. As he stood there sorting the junk from the bills, something flickered at the edge of his field of vision, a swift, shadowy movement along the pavement. It made the hair on his neck prickle.
He turned his head to look closer, but the tall sycamores and oaks that grew along the creek had shaded the dusk into darkness. At first, he couldn't make anything out.
He stood there without moving, and, as his eyes adjusted, a strange tableau came into focus.
A pair of large storm drains bracketed the bottom of the road where it curved to bridge the stream. Evenly arrayed in front of the storm drain across from him were close to a dozen black cats. Solid black. Each cat was holding a distinct posture in a specific spot, so the group looked like a platoon of soldiers frozen at their posts.
The small, gaunt adolescents were ranged in front of the older cats, sitting with tails curled neatly around their black bodies, ears alert, eyes forward. The larger cats had more varied stances, but there was still a strange regularity to their positions. An enormous, sleek Tom with oversized ears that gave him a foxy look sat on the curb above the drain as if surveying the ranks. On either side, two cats sat settled back on their haunches, each with one paw up, claws bared.
Definitely odd. Elliot had noticed the stray cats in the neighborhood before, of course. With the creek and undeveloped wooded area behind the houses here, they saw lots of wild animals-'possums and raccoons and hundreds of squirrels. But he'd never seen the feral cats assemble like this.
Something else flickered at the periphery of his vision. Very slowly, Elliot turned, making sure to keep the tableau of black cats in his line of sight.
In front of the drain on this side, another group had convened. The cats in the second group were all solid white. In contrast to the orderly ranks of the blacks, the white cats' positions looked scattered and chaotic.
The two companies faced each other across the street, motionless and unblinking. Elliot noticed that one of the white cats looked off-sides-a medium-sized female with half an ear missing. She was sitting, tail up, a good six feet away from the rest of her phalanx.
Not one of the cats moved.
It was the weirdest damn thing Elliot had ever seen.
Without any warning, the ragged-eared white cat swooped diagonally across the street. She snatched an adolescent from the ranks of the blacks, seizing its head in her mouth and skittering past the enemy flank into the creek-bed beyond.
It happened at lightning speed, soundlessly, without even a cry from the victim. But Elliot thought he heard the kitten's neck bones crack as the white cat disappeared into the shadows.
He peered after her, trying to track her progress, but the fading light defeated him. By the time he looked back at the street, the tableaux of cats had melted away as if they had never been there.
"Maybe I'm seeing things," he said. His voice sounded rusty. He cleared his throat and turned back toward the house.
The white marauder sat atop the wall of the bridge behind him, calmly licking blood from her snowy fur.
Elliot dropped his mail. The cat looked up at him for a moment, then resumed her unhurried grooming.
"I get it," Elliot whispered, "White rook to Queen's pawn three. Is that it?"
Finished removing the dark blood from her chest, the white cat merely flicked her tail and vanished into the twilight.
Excerpted from "White Rook, Black Pawn," copyright 1996 by Susan Wade.
Available in Twists of the Tale, edited by Ellen Datlow, published by Dell Horror, November 1996.
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