Clive stared at the pond and ground his teeth. His clenched jaw ached. A wisp of grey hair flapped free from his comb over and twitched like an antennae in the icy breeze. But his glare didn’t stray from the water. His blood-shot eyes searched the murky surface but there was only one flash of orange.
Another fish was missing.
And less than a week since the first disappearance.
The initial one had been bad enough. He had spent three days in utter disbelief and a constant state of alert. Wondering if his absent friend had somehow got spooked by a daytime predator, and knowing Hilary called her cat in at dusk, he had set his bedside alarm and ventured out at random intervals throughout the night. But to no avail. Shivering in the moonlight, tears had rolled down his bristly cheeks. Willy had gone.
And now a second – Bruce – had also vanished.
He heard a shrill voice behind the fence, “Evening, Clive.” He didn’t reply or move. He tasted blood and realised he had bitten his tongue.
Hilary peered at her grizzly neighbour through a gap in the wooden slats. She could only see his back, but he appeared frozen over the pond. She hitched her dressing gown tighter against the cold air and sniffed, “Are you alright, love?” He didn’t answer. She shrugged and muttered, “Probably sozzled again.” Turning away, her face lit up and she called, “Tootsie! Tootsie! Time for milkys and huggies!”
Through the fence, Clive heard rustling and loud purring, as Hilary scooped up her plump cat and carried her inside.
Clive gritted his teeth and tasted more blood.
A few hours later, Clive leaned back in his favourite armchair and swilled a fifth sherry. Closing his eyes, he felt the tension ease in his hunched shoulders. Since the first killing (as he now viewed it), he had swirled in a perpetual, discombobulating nightmare. Unable to eat or sleep, he had lain awake, waiting for his missing fish to reappear.
As his thoughts slowed and steadied, he opened his eyes and peered around his spartan flat. A computer hummed on a small table next to his armchair. Fish pictures adorned the walls. There were no family photographs. With today’s events, he had acknowledged the brutal truth and this realisation had brought an inner calm.
Tootsie was picking his fish off one by one. If he didn’t act, his last goldfish would be next. He couldn’t, and wouldn’t, allow anything to happen to Wanda.
He lurched for the sherry bottle and then hesitated. He had to keep her safe tonight. Retaliate tomorrow. For his plan to work, he needed a clear head.
Clive grabbed a dusty rug off the other armchair and nodded. “That should do the trick.” He smiled at his own ingenuity and shuffled towards the backdoor.
Swaying at the pond edge, for one terrifying instant, he couldn’t see Wanda. Then the goldfish streaked past and disappeared into the shadowy depths. He sighed and slurred, “Good girl. Don’t you worry.” He stretched out the filthy rug, let it fall onto the water and watched it slowly sink. He bent down to surface level, winced as his knee joints cracked and whispered under his hand. “Stay under the rug, Wanda. That fat bugger will be gone by tomorrow.” A huge tear welled up in one bleary eye as his love for the last surviving fish, and memories of the joyful times spent feeding the others, threatened to overwhelm him.
Clive wiped away the teardrop, shambled back inside, poured another sherry (one more wouldn’t hurt), picked up a biro and notepad from beside the computer, and began to scribble.
In the adjoining house, Hilary cackled with joy as a greasy-faced contestant won a million pounds on the TV. A large portion of fish and chips lay spread on her lap before her. Every evening, she shared dinner with her pudgy cat.
But tonight, Tootsie wasn’t hungry.
Clive shouted, “Arrrrrgh!” and thrashed out of a nightmare. He knuckled his eyes and blinked at the empty sherry bottle. A second lay half-drunk at his feet.
In his dream, Tootsie had stood on two legs like a cartoon cat. The beast had been whistling and frying something in the kitchen. As he had approached, Tootsie had turned around. She had had a stained apron stretched over her paunch with ‘Gone fishing, catch you later!’ scrawled across its front. Tootsie had unleashed an enormous Cheshire Cat grin and Clive had spotted Willy’s chewed tail dangling from one whisker. Howling and shoving the enormous cat aside, he had looked into the pan and seen Bruce and Wanda bouncing up and down in the oil. They were shrieking. “Ouch! Hot fins! Hot fins!” At that point, he had felt Tootsie’s fangs digging into his neck and burst from the nightmare.
His back was soaked. He shook his head and mumbled, “Jesus.” Something was under his thigh. Reaching down, his coarse fingers brushed the notepad.
And the previous night’s events chugged into his memory.
The top pages displayed crude, childlike doodles of cat slayings. In one, the obese animal was hanging from a lamp post. The pole was bending under its weight. In the next, a cat had a knife in its back. In a third sketch, he had drawn Tootsie’s head sticking out of a lawnmower. He licked his dry lips and grinned. “Not bad.”
Clive turned another page and his eyes widened.
This time, he beamed. “Now, you’re talking.”
Clive pressed himself against his adjoining wall and waited for Hilary’s front door to bang shut. She slammed it every time she came or went.
Today, he welcomed the crash. His shoulders ached and his bladder sagged, but he didn’t dare move from his spot against the fish pictures. If he missed his window, it could mean life or death for Wanda.
He forced himself to visualise Tootsie’s final choking convulsions. This unwrapped a smile on his shaggy face and eased the pain in his prone body.
Then the wall shuddered with the familiar thud of Hilary leaving. Clive staggered from his post.
Toilet forgotten, he licked his lips, patted a stray hair back into his comb over and hurried into the kitchen. He grabbed a bowl and milk carton from the fridge. As he swung open the back door, he chuckled to himself and snatched up the last item. Lawn fertiliser.
Clive emptied the grey seeds into the milk, stirred it with a chapped finger and hummed the Pink Panther theme.
The birds were chirping above, and the sun was warming his pate.
By taking a life, he was saving one. The world was in perfect harmony and supported his scheme.
He glanced at the pond. The rug had sunk but he spotted Wanda hovering at its edges. He winked at the fish. “That’s it. Stay near the cover, girl.” Then, he gave the mixture a final swirl and placed it on the step.
His knees snapped as he stood. There was no sign of the cat yet. He cupped his mouth and imitated Hilary’s grating call. “Here, Tootsie Wootsie! Come and get your milky fresh from the cowy!”
Clive tittered as he crept back inside and waited.
Hilary’s door slam jolted Clive from his afternoon slumber. He glanced down at the second sherry bottle. It was empty. In the excitement and anticipation, he had maybe overdone the medicine. A couple to calm the nerves had morphed into a few.
He wiped slobber from his chin and listened for any cries through the wall.
Clive became restless. He heard Hilary’s TV but nothing more.
He googled how long it took for fertiliser to poison a cat but then became paranoid. People could track things nowadays. He wasn’t very skilled on computers either. He wasn’t sure how to delete the search history. Better to leave it and wait. He had poured half a box into the bowl. That would do it. Unless Tootsie hadn’t drunk the milk. Did cats have a good sense of smell? Could the beast have sensed something amiss? He leaned towards the keyboard and then snatched his hands away again. Sex offenders and terrorists got convicted because of their computers.
Better to wait.
Then Hilary’s piercing screech made his teeth clatter. “Tootsie! Time for din dins!”
Clive leaned forward in his favourite armchair and listened.
Nothing. And then.
“Has Tootsie missed mumsy? What’s that on your whiskers? Has Tootsie been drinking other peoples’ milky? Naughty pussy! Naughty!” He heard Hilary’s loud tutting through the wall.
Clive bit hard on his bony knuckles. He wanted to whoop with joy. He rocked on his chair and released a strangled hiss.
He scampered to the kitchen, grabbed another sherry bottle and resumed his vigil.
Not long now.
Clive heard quiz shows and soaps, but no screams perforated the partition. Unable to sit any longer, he stood up. For a moment, his head spun, and he had to grab the armchair to steady himself. His mouth was dry, and his temples were throbbing. He paused while the nausea washed over him and then stumbled into the kitchen.
At the backdoor, he fumbled with the handle and yanked it open.
Icy air blasted his rough cheeks and grey hairs flailed against his comb over.
Gripping the door frame, he lowered on his creaky knees to inspect the bowl.
Something orange and mottled was bobbing on the moonlit surface.
He blinked and prodded the object. It tilted and a tiny, lifeless eye stared back.
Clive clutched his chest against a sudden pain and pitched forward, shattering the bowl.
The next morning unleashed a bitter ground frost. Hilary opened her backdoor, and shivered, as she watched Tootsie prowl away across the yard.
Behind the fence, man and fish lay frozen, beside an empty pond.
Mark Humphries has a BA Honours Degree in English from the University of Sheffield and teaches ESOL in Leeds, England, where he lives with his wife. His stories have appeared in Horla, East of the Web and Tales from the Moonlit Path.