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Sitting in a bar on Christmas Eve didn’t feel out of the ordinary for David Silver. He was still unmarried, and his last relationship had ended months earlier, before there was even an awkward discussion about whose parents they would visit and how much time he’d need to take off work and what was an appropriate amount to spend on gifts. He was an only child, and had come to an agreement with his parents to take a trip to Vegas together in the spring rather than have him spend an exorbitant amount and battle transit stress to fly to Minneapolis for a few days just because the calendar suggested it.

 

That it was Christmas Eve was largely immaterial to him, since he hung out at the same bar nearly every night anyway. David couldn’t cook worth anything, and it was too cold this time of year to walk to a decent carryout place when the Ceilidh Moon Bar and Grill was located literally forty paces from the front door of his old apartment building, the kitchen was usually open until four, and the tater tots reminded him of the ones his mother fried up when he was little. He would have been sitting there, eating tots and drinking a pint of lager in his usual seat at one end of the curved bar, if it was almost any other Tuesday.

 

On top of all that, he wasn’t even Christian.

 

The one thing out of the ordinary on Christmas Eve was the crowd. The Ceilidh Moon was the kind of place that didn’t stand out in a neighborhood with more than two dozen bars. The crowd most nights consisted mostly of patrons who, while not necessarily regulars, were definitely locals. Couples who’d stop in for a quick bite, guys who would sit at the bar and banter with the bartenders about their day, second shifters taking advantage of their one chance to socialize. Most nights, the jukebox output fit the decor, with the voices of Ronnie Drew or Shane MacGowan mixing with the same kinds of strings, drums, accordions and whistles placed on shelves throughout the establishment. The mood was usually upbeat, but in an everyday, hail-fellow-well-met manner.

 

This night was different. For one thing, there were a lot more people. David wasn’t eavesdropping, but he overheard enough to know at least a few of the bigger groups were made up of high school classmates in town for the holiday, meeting as a way of collectively avoiding family obligations until the next day while ostensibly catching up on the last year. There were more drunks than usual, mostly sad-sack types consuming hard liquor by themselves at the bar, either trying to overcompensate for feeling all alone or trying to forget the people who made them wish they were all alone. The Irish couple who owned the bar and usually served the drinks themselves had taken the night off, leaving the job in the hands of an eager young man and an unsmiling woman back home between semesters of law school, and letting them close at midnight. Even the music was different, as the more transient customers had spent their quarters on seasonal staples by Bobby Helms and Eartha Kitt and Burl Ives.

 

There was also a cat.

 

The cat was directly opposite David, seated on the top of the bar. The very idea of a cat in the Ceilidh Moon was striking and rather weird, but this was also a rather strikingly weird cat. It had the look of a house cat, but was significantly bigger than any he’d ever seen, closer in magnitude to a small dog. David assumed from the cat’s size that it was a he, and he was a mostly black cat with a large, white patch on his chest. The cat sat upright with his front paws touching, and his back paws perfectly aligned alongside them, sitting so still that he could have been a statue if not for the green eyes scanning the room on high alert.

 

“Any idea where the cat came from?” David turned to ask the people sitting next to him, only to find that the two fratty guys who had been there a few minutes earlier were now occupied in a darts game, and that both bartenders were in back. David took another sip from his lager and went back to writing some work ideas on a small notepad. Still, he kept looking across the bar at the cat, who now seemed to be staring specifically at him.

 

By the time the bartender returned with his sandwich and another drink, David had grown bored and started a sketch of the cat on his notepad, figuring the animal’s stillness and focus made it a perfect model. The younger man, whose name tag identified him as Colin, hadn’t seemed to notice the animal’s presence until David asked him, “Do you know what the deal is with the cat?”

 

“No idea. It can’t be the boss’s cat; he’s allergic. Where’d he come from?”

 

“Couldn’t tell you. I just turned around and he was sitting there.”

 

“Heh. It looks like he’s waiting to order. Like he thinks he’s people.”

 

“He definitely looks like he’s waiting for something,” David said. “You could at least give him some milk.”

 

David had been joking, but the bartender took out the cream kept on hand for White Russians and poured some of it into a coffee cup. As he placed it in front of the cat, the animal didn’t appear at all skittish, though he watched Colin intently until the transaction was complete. David could have sworn the cat looked across the bar at him and nodded before starting to lap up the cream with his pink tongue.

 

After watching the animal drink for a bit, David returned to his sketch as the music switched over to Greg Lake professing his belief in Christmas stories. He was nearly finished drawing, and was starting to feel a slight buzz from his beverage, when the jukebox began playing an old chestnut about said nuts roasting on an open fire. He started to hum along, and noticed someone else was humming in the seat next to him.

 

“That’s a good drawing,” said the stout older man, who had sat down without David noticing. “I take it you like cats?”

 

“Yes. I only have one now, but I’ve always had cats.”

 

“Good for you. A lot of people say they’re afraid of them.”

 

“My great-grandmother was like that. She had a lot of superstitions from the old country.”

 

“What old country? What superstitions?” the stranger said. “I’m sorry if I seem nosy. I’m just curious about these kinds of things.”

 

“No, it’s fine. She grew up in a rural part of Ireland where almost everyone believed in stuff like that. She showed me where it was on a map once, but I don’t remember the name. It wasn’t really near Cork, but it was closer to Cork than to any other city, if that makes sense.”

 

“Sure.”

 

“She used to complain because my mother would let our cat in the room when I was a baby. She used to think cats would steal children’s souls while they slept.”

 

“Do you think she really believed that?”

 

“Definitely,” David said, thinking about his long-dead great-grandmother for the first time in years. “When she got sick, she stayed with us for a few months, and she used to lock our cat Tommy in the basement. I could play with him in there, but she wouldn’t let him follow us upstairs. He was the sweetest cat you’d ever meet, and she was absolutely terrified of him.”

 

“I’ve never understood how people could be that afraid of cats.” The stranger scratched his beard, but otherwise gave David his full attention. “They’ve always been perfectly friendly to me.”

 

“It wasn’t just cats; she was superstitious about a lot of things,” David said, surprising himself with how much he remembered. “My mother told me a story once about going to a farm with her. My mother was young, I think twelve or thirteen, and was dying to learn how to ride a horse. So she talked her grandmother into taking her to a farm that had a stable. They drove two hours to get there, and then turned right around. She wouldn’t let my mother learn to ride because the stable only had black horses, and she thought one of them might be a pooka who would carry her off.”

 

“Strange, that. I will say, you seem like you don’t believe any of this stuff.” The stranger signaled to the female bartender, pointing to David’s glass to get him a refill, but without ordering anything for himself.

 

“I’m not much for believing in mythology. I am sitting in a bar on Christmas Eve.”

 

“Surely you know that this day had nothing to do with Christianity,” the man said. “I don’t mean to offend you, but the Christians only used this day to co-opt the winter solstice. A day that belonged to those who came long before them…”

 

“I know all that, and no offense taken. I’m not Christian. I mean, my great-grandmother was, but she was the only one on that side of the family.”

 

David did worry that the stranger might be offending some of the other customers as the man continued to explain the pagan origins of the holiday, how there were and had always been metaphysical forces in the world that animals understand better than people, and how people like his great-grandmother were more in tune than others but didn’t really understand the world. One couple talking nearby left in an unmistakable huff when the man pointed to the bar’s Christmas tree next to the fireplace and called it a “particularly clever way of associating their god with the ancient symbol of everlasting life.”

 

By the time this history lesson was complete, David had finished the last of his food and the fresh drink that arrived. When he was done talking, the stranger stood up to leave. “Thanks for listening to me,” the man said, patting David on the shoulder. He started to walk away, but turned just long enough to say, “Before I forget, when you see O’Toole, tell him that O’Flaherty is dead.”

 

“I don’t know who you mean…” David replied, but the stranger was beyond hearing range, and David didn’t see any reason to chase him down. Instead, he went back to his drawing of the cat. When he looked across the bar to use his model, however, he found the animal had left that spot and the bowl of cream had been licked clean. David continued his sketch from memory, as best he could, listening to one Christmas song after another as the crowd gradually faded. The buzz he’d acquired from his drinks faded a bit less quickly. He paid his check as soon as the younger bartender announced last call at midnight, leaving a generous holiday tip.

 

As the jukebox played Shane and Kirsty singing about the boys of the NYPD choir, David Silver donned his coat and scarf and headed out of the Ceilidh Moon in the early minutes of what had become Christmas Day.

 

*                      *                      *

 

Snow was falling when David left the bar, but the night was actually pleasant. There wasn’t enough to please anyone dreaming of an alabaster holiday, and the lack of wind mixed with his alcohol consumption made the midnight air feel warmer than a thermometer would admit. Warm enough that he decided to walk off what remained of his modest intoxication and pick up a few supplies from the all-night convenience store at the other end of the block. The weather report had predicted a substantial storm coming the following night, and he thought it couldn’t hurt to be prepared.

 

David Silver walked to the end of the street, listening to the sounds made by the bar’s emptying of the night’s last patrons and by a few cars vacating the area as their owners shifted to holiday preparation. In just the time it took him to cover a block, the night had gone silent. Except for one thing. As he passed the alley between the furniture shop and the bookstore, he heard a loud rustling. Turning to look, he could see something was moving in the middle of a pile of trash bags stacked next to an overfilled dumpster. Almost as soon as he turned, a shape emerged from under the pile and sprang out of the alley in David’s direction.

 

Another cat.

 

This one looked a lot like the one he’d seen in the bar, but also different enough that nobody paying attention would ever confuse them for the same individual. This cat was also black, with the same kind of white spot on its chest, though the spot was a little larger and more oblong. The animal was shaped differently than the one he’d seen in the Ceilidh Moon, long and lean where the other was bulky. Still closer to the size of a dog than of a typical cat, but more like a small greyhound in build.

 

Though it darted toward David, the animal stopped abruptly just a few inches from his feet. After his conversation at the bar, David couldn’t help but laugh, thinking about how pleased his great-grandmother would have been that he avoided the cat crossing his path. He had yet to encounter a cat-related superstition she hadn’t fervently believed and warned him about in the few years their lives intersected.

 

This cat was also in considerably worse condition than the other one. Its fur was patchy, with some sections appearing sticky or mussed, and others missing as if lost in a fight with other animals. The left ear was missing the tip, and the mostly black fur had a few streaks of grey. The cat’s battle scars weren’t fresh, just signs that the feline had probably used up a few of its allegedly recurring lives.

 

“Hi there, little one,” David said, in the tone of voice he unconsciously reserved for babies and fuzzy animals. “Where’d you come from?” The cat treated the question rhetorically, simply tilting its head and not even giving him a meow. It didn’t try to rub up against him the way cats usually did, but it didn’t flee either; it just sat still and silently regarded him. When David reached down to pat it on the head, the cat reared its head just out of his reach, but the rest of its body stayed in place.

 

David left the animal where it sat, passed the furniture store and went inside the little bodega, which was empty except for a teenage clerk reading a sports magazine and watching stop-motion Christmas cartoons on a small television set. David said good evening and received a mumbled response, then began his impulse-driven shopping for the next few days. A loaf of bread, a half gallon of milk, a block of Colby cheese, a bag of chips. He went back and forth on whether he had paper towels and bar soap in his place, and was equally indecisive about whether he really needed a pint of ice cream, before throwing all those items in his handheld basket. Passing the pet food, he was sure he had more than enough on hand for his own cat, but grabbed one can for the hungry one outside, guessing the tuna flavor was the most universally beloved. The teenager said little as he scanned David’s groceries and arranged them in a large paper bag. David swiped his credit card and wished the clerk a mere goodnight, then corrected himself and added a happy but unspecific holiday.

 

The snowfall was lighter when he returned to the outdoors, and David couldn’t help but catch a few flakes with his tongue. The ground around him featured a light and mostly unspoiled dusting, in which he saw the absent cat’s oversized paw prints leading away from where David last saw it and back toward the alley. When David got to the alley, he took the can of food from the bag and pulled back the ring on top, knowing from experience that the slow scratch of an opening tin was usually an automatic draw for cats.

 

“Here, little one,” he said as he entered into the alley. “I’ve got something for you.”

 

“For me?” a voice replied. David realized there was a gaunt, homeless woman sitting near the dumpster. He couldn’t have guessed her age, with her skin and hair showing heavy damage that could just as easily be from stress or the elements as time. “I appreciate the thought, sir, but we don’t all actually have to eat cat food. Tell you the truth, the restaurants around here throw out a lot of perfectly good food.”

 

“Oh I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean it like that,” David said, putting the half-open can back in his bag. “I just didn’t see you there.”

 

“Sir, if I’ve learned anything from life on the streets, it’s that most people are experts at not seeing things that are sitting right in front of them. Especially if they’re inconvenient to see.”

 

“Please, I didn’t mean it that way. I just bought this for a cat I saw around here. Really thin, but with a big frame. Black with a white spot.”

 

“I know the cat you’re talking about. You could say she lives here with me.”

 

“Is she your cat?”

 

The woman laughed at that, but it was a wheezy kind that only lasted half a second. “As much as such a thing is possible. We can no more own a cat than we can the wind or the rain. A man can own a dog; that’s as easy as owning a table. Or a horse. A man can even own a donkey, though the beast outlives him more often than not. A cat is different. Don’t you agree?”

 

“I don’t know. I’ve had my cat Beauregard for almost nine years, and I raised him from an orphan.”

 

“See, the cat sounds like your ward. You care for him, you feed him, I assume you love him and he probably loves you as well. But he’s no more your possession than you are his.”

 

“It sounds like you’ve thought about this a lot.” This was the longest conversation David had ever had with a homeless person before money was requested, though he’d already decided to give her the four bucks he had left in his wallet whenever their conversation wrapped.

 

“Look around, sir. I have plenty of time and space to think about things these days. Now, you could call the cat you saw earlier my traveling companion. Do you know the old story of Dick Whittington?”

 

“I think so. The guy who went to London because the streets were paved with gold, and he traveled with a cat…”

 

“The streets in the real world are rarely paved with gold, sir, and it can be a long way down from where we started life. Trust me. But a loyal cat always makes for good company on the journey. Don’t you agree?”

 

“Sure. Does this cat have others like her that hang out in the alley? I saw one earlier tonight that could be her brother, only he was a lot bigger.” David left out anything about that cat’s superior condition, but he was curious if there was an explanation for his random sightings of similar felines. The woman didn’t say anything, but shook her head. “What’s the cat’s name? I hate to just keep calling it ‘the cat.’”

 

“Cats have their own names that aren’t for humans to know. We name them for our own benefit, but they will always know the names they’re born with.” She continued to pontificate on how those who came before understood this better, how the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Celts had held cats in the proper esteem, and how the modern world and its conveniences were replacing this deep connection.

 

She went on like this for a few minutes, obviously glad to have someone listening. David couldn’t quite tell if he was listening to a smart woman who had trouble organizing her thoughts out loud after whatever misfortunes had befallen her, or a harmless but ultimately crazy woman who would be a cat hoarder if she had a permanent residence in which to hoard them.

 

David didn’t want to be rude, but the hour was catching up to him and he was starting to tire of this chat. He gave what he hoped was a realistic yawn, which did interrupt the woman’s train of thought. “It’s getting late, I think I need to get going,” he said, careful to avoid using the word “home” or anything else that might cause offense.

 

“A new king is born today,” the old woman said. It was the first succinct sentence she’d said in a while.

 

“It is Christmas Day, isn’t it? Well, merry Christmas to you…”

 

“No, the real king, of those who came long before. Do you know what this day really means?”

 

Rather than sit through another long lecture like the one he’d received at the bar, David just nodded. “Yes, the celebration of the winter solstice.”

 

“More than that, today. More than that…” The woman suddenly stood up and stumbled closer to him, her voice growing more urgent. “O’Flaherty is dead. You must tell O’Toole.”

 

“I will if I see him,” David replied, knowing nothing about what that meant but at least knowing it meant his two random encounters weren’t entirely random. “Here, before I forget.” He placed his grocery bag on the ground, and found the partially opened tin of cat food. He gave it to the woman, along with his bag of chips. He started to reach for his wallet, but she shook her head and told him the food was all she required.

 

As he left the alley and started walking home, David Silver paused a few times to look for fresh cat tracks in the fallen snow, but discovered that even the ones he’d seen earlier were now covered by a soft layer of virgin powder. Only his own footprints remained.

 

*                      *                      *

 

A few minutes later, David Silver was walking up the fire escape to his second-floor apartment. His arm had gotten tired from carrying the bag of groceries, so he placed it down on the wood railing while he searched his pocket for his keys. Once found, the keys dropped from his hands, and David bent down to pick them up from where they’d landed near his tattered welcome mat.

 

In case his evening hadn’t been sufficiently strange, David found a trio of other objects on the mat, placed at exact intervals. With the limited glow from his porch light, it took him a few seconds to realize what he was seeing. The thing on the left was a dead mouse, or possibly a vole, positioned with all its legs tight against the body so that it looked streamlined. The thing on the right was a similarly arranged dead bird; he assumed it was probably a young finch. In between, there was something shiny and metallic that looked like a small coin or a piece of foil, but he didn’t feel like wiping rodent blood off its surface to find out more.

 

He’d received leavings like this growing up, when he lived in the Minneapolis suburbs and had outdoor cats who would return home with similar trophies. The practice hadn’t gotten less unsettling.

 

David cleaned the mat using the broom and dustpan he kept near the back door, planning to bury the animals the next morning and assuming it was cold enough that there wasn’t a rush to do so. He wasn’t sure what cat left these tokens for him, though he had a pair of suspects. He finally collected his groceries and went inside, wiping his feet a few times on the mat’s bristles. His own pet, an orange cat with a pattern of cream-colored ribbons, greeted him at the door as always, headbutting David’s legs as he removed his shoes and socks. “Hi buddy, I’m happy to see you too,” he said as he put his bag on the kitchen counter and picked up Beauregard. “I know, it’s been sooooo long. I haven’t seen you in six whole hours.” He usually made jokes like this about his cat’s affectionate greetings, but he never tired of the animal’s reliable excitement at his arrival.

 

Once the food was put away, the mail was sorted and a restroom trip was completed, David flopped down on the worn armchair in his living room. He put his feet up on the ottoman and turned on the television, changing the channel a few times before he found Jimmy Stewart dressed in a football outfit and talking to a bush. Beauregard jumped up and wedged himself in the open space formed by David’s outstretched and crossed legs, staring at his owner and letting out a quiet meow. Knowing what the cat wanted, and knowing the neighbors both upstairs and downstairs were out of town and out of earshot, David took his tin whistle off the end table and played a few notes of “An Maidrin Rua.” His pet joined in by meowing, one of the quirky behaviors David had discovered in his kitten nine years ago and used treats to reinforce until it became a repeatable trick.

 

A few seconds later, Beauregard was voicing a different meow and looking at something in the window behind the television. David couldn’t quite see it, but his cat was staring intensely, with his body pointing in that direction like a hunting dog. David got up and walked over, the orange cat running under his feet, and saw exactly what he had come to expect.

 

Another cat. This one sitting on the railing of the fire escape, staring directly into his home. Also black, also with a white spot, also bigger than an average cat.

 

“That does it,” David said, to nobody in particular. He rushed into the kitchen, pulled on his shoes without bothering to tie them, and grabbed his coat from where he’d left it on the counter. He checked the door to make sure it wouldn’t lock behind him, then sprang out onto the wooden fire escape just in time to see the cat leap off the railing.

 

Before he could get a closer look, David noticed a strange texture under his foot and found someone had left a piece of paper on his welcome mat. When he bent down to get it, he could feel it was something thicker, some kind of strange parchment, and the stock showed a great deal of wear. The message on it, written in an elaborate script and with a fragrant ink, was something more familiar. “Tell O’Toole that O’Flaherty is dead.” He also noticed that the dead animals and metal piece he’d earlier removed from his doormat had been moved, and found them on the window sill near where the cat had been sitting, arranged exactly as they’d been when he first found them.

 

David walked over to where the cat had jumped down, and scanned the area below to see where it might have gone. The cat was nowhere to be seen. Instead, David saw a thin man pacing slowly in the alley. He wore a sweatshirt too light even for such a mild winter night, with the hood pulled up over his head.

 

“Hey you!” David yelled. “You, in the hood.” The figure turned, but with the sweatshirt hood over his head and with so little light in the alley, David couldn’t see the man’s face. The hooded man’s head moved as if he was saying something, but he pointed at his own mouth, shaking his head to indicate he either couldn’t or wouldn’t talk. “Did you leave me this?” David called down, holding up the piece of parchment and growing angry when the stranger nodded in response. “I don’t know either of these people, and I don’t know why everyone seems to think I do.” He’d thought about it, too, searching his memory throughout the evening for any O’Toole he might have known in the past and recalling only a famous actor he’d never personally met and the name of a local bar that had closed years earlier. “Why do people keep telling me about this? What do they think I can do about it?”

 

Predictably, the man below him didn’t answer, only nodding to indicate that he’d heard the complaints. David continued to list details about his night, about the repeated requests to convey the death of another person he’d never met, about the cats he kept seeing, about how he was just tired and wanted to go to sleep and be left alone to enjoy a needed day off from work. The hooded figure’s body language made it seem like he was listening, but he said nothing in reply. “You know what?” David said at last. “You want to tell O’Toole your news, why don’t you find him and tell him yourself?” He was conscious that he was speaking a little loudly for two in the morning on Christmas Day, but there was no sign that anybody else in the area cared. The snow had truly started to fall by now, and David wanted to say his piece and then go back inside.

 

When David was done, the man in the hoodie raised his right arm and pointed at something on the other side of the alley, through the metal back gate of the vintage apartment building behind David’s. He strained to see what the man was pointing at, trying to make it out through both the wind-blown flakes and the tightly designed links of the gate.

 

What David saw was the rounded shape of a small headstone, too far away for him to read the inscription. He could tell it wasn’t made of familiar letters, but instead marked with some kind of symbols or runes. At first he thought this was intended as a threat, or a grim warning of the future, maybe a sign that O’Flaherty hadn’t done what he was told. A second later, however, he could see something moving toward the stone. The black shape was difficult to see against the poorly lit sky, but it soon revealed itself as a cat. Then David saw another.

 

He soon realized he was looking at nine cats, all black, all the same breed as the three he’d seen earlier that night. For all he could tell, those three were among the ones he was seeing. The cats were moving in two rows, on both sides of a black, rectangular object that could only be a coffin. Eight of the animals were pushing it, with one cat leading the procession. The sight was strangely hypnotic, but soon the snowfall completely blocked David’s view of the cats. When he looked around, he noticed that the man in the hoodie was also gone, his footsteps already masked by fresh snow.

 

Several times, David checked the spot where he’d seen the nine cats, but couldn’t see them anymore. He couldn’t even see the headstone, and began to wonder if he’d imagined the whole thing. After all, he was running on very little sleep, had been out drinking, and had experienced enough strange encounters in the past few hours that his imagination could be forgiven for getting away from him. He waited a few more minutes to see if he might be able to glimpse the funeral again, before the cold and his exhaustion urged him to give up and go back inside.

 

*                      *                      *

 

David’s cat greeted him at the door, rubbing against his owner’s legs, then sprinted away and planted himself next to his food dish, meowing. Figuring Beauregard was confused by his coming and going, David relented and gave his pet a rare extra meal, filling the bowl only halfway full of kibble. While the orange cat ate, David took off his coat, his jeans, and his long-sleeve shirt. Now dressed in the white tee and boxers that doubled as his standard pajamas, he took the piece of parchment he’d found on the welcome mat, balled it up, and shot it like a basketball into his kitchen trashcan. He turned on his electric coffeepot and used it boil water for a cup of herbal tea, which he spiked with a few drops of whiskey to help him wind down before bed.

 

With Beauregard at his heels, David took his hot toddy into the living room and turned on the television, where George Bailey was now being tossed out of a once-familiar watering hole. He took his fiddle down from its usual spot on his decorative but dormant fireplace and flopped down in his chair, while the cat took his usual spot on the ottoman. Figuring a song would help him forget the strangeness of his evening, David began to play “Carrickfergus” and sing along as best he could with a throat still constricted from the cold.

 

He was only on the second verse when his phone started to ring. At first, David worried some neighbor had canceled their overnight plans and his music was too loud for them. When he answered the call, he was relieved to find it was his grandmother in Killarney calling to wish him a happy holiday, repeating her pattern of miscalculating time zones ever since he’d left his home state. She apologized when he pointed out that it was past two in the morning, but he told her he was still awake and could talk. They went through their normal phone exchange, with David explaining that work was fine, that he wasn’t seeing anyone but was working on it, that his parents were doing fine, that he was not in need of money but grateful for her offer.

 

When she asked what he was doing awake in the middle of the night, David was actually grateful to have someone to tell about his past few hours. He began his story with how he got home from work and went to the pub for dinner, explaining the cat and the stranger in the bar. He noticed that Beauregard seemed to take an interest in this part of the story, sitting upright and looking at him with the same concentration the cat usually reserved for requesting food or hearing his name called. David figured it must owe to his repeated use of the word “cat,” one of the human terms he knew his pet recognized.

 

The cat continued to focus on David as he recounted the rest of the story. He told his grandmother about the homeless woman and how he gave her cat a can of food, and about the hooded man in the alley who left him a note, though he avoided mentioning the procession of cats, which he found too strange to share. “I almost forgot the most curious part,” David said. “They all told me the same thing. They said that O’Flaherty was dead, and that I was supposed to tell O’Toole. I don’t even know anybody named O’Toole.”

 

While David’s words prompted his grandmother to suggest possible sources of O’Tooles he could contact, they got a different response from Beauregard, one David wouldn’t have believed if it had happened even eight hours earlier.

 

His cat spoke.

 

At first, it was in a language David didn’t understand, something that sounded vaguely Celtic. It was definitely speech, not a meow or a growl, in a voice much deeper than the cat’s normal pitch. The cat cocked his head at David, who had dropped his conversation and was staring in silence at his pet.

 

Beauregard regarded him for a moment, then spoke again, this time in perfect English. “O’Flaherty is truly dead?” the animal asked. David just nodded slowly, too shocked to speak. “Then I am the king of the cats.” With that, the cat leaned forward in a slight bow and then bolted.

 

David dropped the phone, though he could hear his grandmother’s voice through the speaker, asking if he was still there. Before he could even get up from his chair, his cat had run into the old fireplace and up the shaft. David followed and looked up, but the animal had been too fast, and must have gotten out of the building. He ran into the kitchen, pulled on his shoes and coat, and searched the fire escape for the cat. He didn’t see him anywhere.

 

Unsure what else to do, David spent the rest of the small hours wandering the few blocks around his house, calling for his cat and keeping an eye out for any more black cats with white spots who might provide clues. The snow was falling faster and the wind was getting strong, but he continued his search, checking every alley and driveway in the neighborhood.

 

David was still searching when the sunrise came, and the expanses of white around him reflected its early morning light. Not long after, the church bells nearby began to ring out for Christmas Day, and the quiet streets started to fill with people en route to their holiday plans. David took one more stroll around the area, wondering if he could explain what had happened to anyone else without seeming crazy.

 

Finding no clues and struggling to stay awake, David Silver felt he had no choice but to return to his apartment and wait for his unusual cat to return.


About the Author: Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in more than a dozen publications including the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, Steam Ticket, Pioneertown and Crossborder Journal. He is also the author of non-fiction books including “Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections” (Zest Books, 2016), “Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries” (Zest Books, 2015), and “The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias” (Fall River Press, 2011). He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental_Floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.

Artwork: Sean McCollum