To Skin A Cat
By John Robinson
Joe Box Series Novel #3
River Oak Publishers
Reviewers say Joe Box is “tough and hard to bluff; a character that gets under your skin – and stays there … one of the most appealing protagonists ever created; To Skin a Cat doesn’t disappoint. There is no other writer today who does this better.”
“Robinson proves again what many maintain is impossible: blending gritty, hardcore, pavement pounding detective fiction with spiritual truths … the best yet of Joe Box”
I jumped up, balling my fists as I stared around, wide-eyed.
They were everywhere, ominously floating. Shifting. Silently moaning. That was always the worst part. Their mouths moved in the flames, but no sound could be heard. My hands were clenched so tight I felt my nails drawing blood. Some of the visages before me looked hauntingly familiar, guys I’d served with in the war, or as a cop on the force. Sometimes even my wife and son.
The problem was, they were all faces of the long-ago dead.
Through the ocher walls came their grasping hands, beckoning me to join them. Up through the floor came more gray, ethereal fingers, plucking at my clothes and grabbing at me. With every bit of self-will I possessed I stood stock-still.
“It’s not real,” I said out loud. “None of this is real. There aren’t any faces. There aren’t any hands. There aren’t.” But it didn’t seem to be working. Still they called me, like the Sirens to Ulysses.
I felt my resolution crumbling, turning to powder like old plaster. That’s when inexplicably the hands retreated, and the faces faded.
Once more I found myself alone in the dank room, drawing in gasping, shuddering breaths. Knees weak, I leaned against the wall, now bare of phantoms, willing my pounding heart to slow down before it tore itself apart.
I couldn’t take much more of this. One of these times they weren’t going to leave. Not until they took me with them.
Almost surrendering to despair, it was all I could do not to hang my head and weep. A part of me sneered in derision. Joe Box, tough guy. Vietnam vet. Former cop. Hardnosed private eye. Look at him. About to cry like a little girl.
Yeah, what of it? I almost answered, checking my reply at the last second. I had to watch that. Talking to myself, especially here in this dark realm, could be habit-forming. It seemed to me all I needed to make it through this was a friend. Just one tiny friend …
I got my wish.
Under the wooden door, slithering into the room came a small green garter snake. His vermilion skin was cartoon-bright, and like a cartoon, his face carried a happy smile.
I returned it, grateful for the company. As a kid growing up in the hills of eastern Kentucky, I’d kept garter snakes as pets lots of times. The last one I’d owned, right before my dad and Granny and me had moved up to Cincinnati, I’d named Lester. This little guy here looked just like Lester.
I bent low, offering him my hand. The snake ignored me, instead curling himself around my ankle. I smiled again. That was so much like Lester too.
“Hey, Lester,” I said. “Want to take a walk around the room? Like we used to?”
Lester didn’t answer. He never did. But this time there was a reason.
He was morphing.
The creature looped around my ankle wasn’t a green garter snake anymore. It was a small black python. When it looked up, its eyes glowed with lovely cold fire.
Slowly, almost casually Lester began climbing. And as he climbed, he began growing and thickening. He was eight feet long now, and as thick as my arm as he coiled himself around my body.
And then, in a slow, mesmerizing rhythm, Lester began pulsating with dark, rich colors. Blood red. Jet black. Running from his head to his tail.
This wasn’t so bad. Kind of pretty. His weight felt good too. Good old Lester … I started to stroke him.
And that’s when things went south.
The snake’s eyes locking hard onto mine, he started to squeeze. The breath exploded from my lungs as my eyes bulged. What the–? This wasn’t even close to being right. Why was Lester trying to kill me?
I didn’t know, and I didn’t have time to ponder it. Whipping my body from side to side, I struggled to free myself from his death grip. To no avail. I was running out of time. Fast. Sliding my hands down Lester’s body, frantically I sought some kind of purchase on his slick scales. Anything. A couple of feet from his neck, I found it. A soft, mealy spot. My thumbs sunk deep as heartsick, and with everything I had, I ripped poor Lester open. His flesh parted beneath my hands like cold, wet newspaper. The snake shuddered. That should have ended it. But it didn’t.
Through the rents in Lester’s sides erupted a horde of scorpions.
There were dozens of them, hundreds, each as big as my thumb and as black as sin. They kept coming, now crawling all over me with spiky feet. Everywhere they touched, their stingers felt like the blue-white tips of acetylene torches, searing and cooking my flesh.
Helpless, I screamed in fear, rage, and agony.
The scorpions screamed back, a piercing cacophony, joined by the Lester-thing. The faces in the wall had returned, and they’d found their voices, laughing maniacally.
In the midst of the madness, I fought to stay sane. “Come on, Box, wake up,” I said. “Resist this. It’s not real.” And it wasn’t. I awoke with a start.
Jumping up off the couch and staggering to my feet I found myself drenched in cold sweat and shaking like an aspen. The images of the nightmare still fresh in my mind, I ran my fingers through my hair. I couldn’t take much more. Three nights in a row now. Three.
October, to my thinking, is the best time of the year. By then the harsh heat and heavy humidity of the Cincinnati summer is gone, and winter’s nasty grasp hasn’t yet begun. Although from time to time you can hear it cracking its knuckles in anticipation.
Outside my office window, the sky above the neighborhood of Mount Healthy where I worked (strange name, I know; don’t ask), had gradually eased from that white kiln-like color the summer heat paints it to the deep, azure blue it only gets in late fall. I had the window cracked just a bit to let in the cool gentle breeze as I went over some paperwork.
Another hour of this, then I’d pick up my fiancée Angela Swain for our date, which tonight would consist of a fine French meal at the Chez Maison, followed by what the critics were calling a pretty good comedy at the Playhouse in the Park. All that was needed to complete this tranquil scene was a little red breasted robin trilling outside, a la’ Mary Poppins. I sighed in contentment.
The shrill, harsh ringing of my phone broke that serenity. I picked up. Business always has an aggravating way of intruding. “Box Investigations.”
“Is this Mr. Joseph Box?” The voice was male, a bit older, breathy, pleasant.
“Yes. Who’s this?”
“I’m in your lobby sir. I was calling to see if you were in, before I undertook the task of mounting your stairs. Goodbye.”
“What?” But whoever it was had hung up. Oh well. If the guy really was in the lobby, the mystery would be solved soon enough.
A few moments later I heard the ponderous tread of someone starting to make their way up the stairwell. The man — if it was the same one who’d just called — was having a hard time of it. Thud, thud, and a pause. One riser conquered. Thud, thud, and another pause. I couldn’t help it as I began humming I’ve Been Working on the Railroad in time to the sound. This looked like it might take a while, so I folded my hands on the desk blotter in front of me, pasted on a bland expression, and waited.