(Previously appeared on Enigmatic Tales, a British print publication.)
Steve uttered a curse of relief when he saw the pension in the distance. It didn’t have any sign, any name, but he was sure it was a pension because after staying in so many of them for the past three years he knew damn well what a pension looked like.
He slowed down and squinted at it. The setting sun was exactly behind it, giving it a holly yet eerie appearance, as if the beams of light rose from the house itself.
Steve didn’t know how long he’d been driving. Five hours? Ten? Twenty?
His pulse was still racing. He had to calm down. Sweat was pouring down his forehead, down the back of his neck. He could feel it trickling all the way down to his waist. It hadn’t been his fault. It hadn’t. The greedy bastard had tried to cheat him, and then in the struggle he’d found himself pulling out his Swiss knife and stabbing the man’s chest. Not his fault, not his fault, not his fault….
He stopped the car and shut his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again the sun had almost completely set. The sky was a darkening blend of pinks and violets. He grabbed his small battered suitcase from the passenger seat and stepped out of the car. He slammed the door shut with the heel of his boot and glanced around. The place was deserted. No cars, no people, no sound. He didn’t know where the hell he was. Somewhere in the middle of Central Anatolia . He had just driven and driven compulsively, as if by doing so he could erase what had happened in Izmir .
The terrain was hard and dry. It felt airless. Even though it was dusk it must have been close to a hundred degrees. Ominous beige mountains rose around him in the distance.
The pension, a two-story house with whitewashed walls and small windows, was perfectly ordinary. It stood in the heat without any comfort from trees. Six narrow steps led to the entrance door.
As he walked toward the door he saw a grey cat poised serenely on one of the steps.
Steve had had many cat pets when he was little. Looking at them always made him feel good. He leaned over to scratch its neck. The cat arched its back with pleasure. Then Steve noticed the cat’s collar. It was a beautiful silver band with inscriptions engraved on it. Frowning, he crouched to have a better look. The inscriptions looked like ancient Sumerian writing. But was it possible? No, he had to be wrong. What would a cat in a pension in the middle of nowhere be doing with a priceless archaeological artifact? Maybe it was a cheap replica… but it did look genuine. He should know. It took a smuggler of archaeological artifacts to tell the real from the fake.
Steve leaned against the wall, suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of dizziness. When was the last time he’d had a meal? He was imagining things. He had stabbed a man for a few thousand dollars worth of ancient junk, and now his punishment would be seeing priceless cat necklaces wherever he went. His fingers tightened on the suitcase.
The cat was staring at him, and for an instant its slanted, intelligent green eyes appeared to mock him.
But what if he was not imaging it? Steve reached for the cat again, took hold of the necklace. Yes, a thick band of silver it was, roughly carved, but beautiful. He turned it round, looking for some sort of clasp. Slightly surprised, he realized it didn’t have any. It fitted tightly to the cat’s neck, which made it impossible to pull it off from the head. Strange. Maybe it had been put on the cat when it was a kitten. The only way to take it off would be by cutting off the head.
The cat felt soft, malleable in his hands. It began to lick Steve's fingers. It somehow disturbed him, the raspy feeling of that tongue, its persistence. He gave the cat one last pat and stood up, then he walked inside.
There was a small reception desk and a sitting room from which a staircase led up to the second floor and down to, presumably, a cellar.
“Merhaba!” he saluted in his heavily accented Turkish. “Kimsi var mi?”
He heard a sound suddenly. Hissing, moaning. As if several animals were engaged in a fight. Oddly, it seemed to come from downstairs. Probably cats in the cellar.
It stopped after a moment, and then there was only silence.
A young woman appeared at the top of the stairs. A tall and regal woman that for an instant made Steve hold his breath. Her features were far from perfect. Her eyes were too slanted, her nose too small, her lips too meaty. But it was this oddity of features what made her irresistible. And then there was her hair, a silky veil of melted onyx that only served to heighten the creamy paleness of her skin. Her slender body was enclosed in a dark green kaftan embroidered in gold. But it was the color of her eyes what left him entranced. Brilliant hazel eyes, almost yellow, like a lion’s.
She smiled, displaying perfect little teeth. “Merhaba,” she said, her voice like velvet. “You want a room?” she added as she came down the stairs, surprising him with her perfect English. Yet her accent was strong, sensual. She walked around the reception desk, her brilliant eyes narrowing as they fixed themselves on him.
For a moment, looking at her, he had a feeling of disorientation. The floor literally seemed to shift beneath his feet.
He found himself with his hands on his forehead, as if to steady his head. Then the awful feeling was gone, and he gave a sigh.
“Oh, you speak English. That’s great… that’s just great. Yes, please, a room.”
It was odd, suddenly. The reception desk was empty, absolutely nothing on it. No pen, no notebook, nothing.
“What’s your name?” she asked him, extracting a key from behind the desk.
“Gabriel… Gabriel Barlow,” he lied.
“Mmm… Gabriel,” she murmured, as if tasting the name in her lips. “Like the angel?”
He stared at her, confused for a moment. Then his lips twisted in a nervous smile. “Ah… yes. Like the angel… but not the angel.”
She extended him the key. “Here, room number three. It has its own bathroom. Just go up the stairs and it’s the third room to your left.”
His hand brushed hers, and the coolness of her flesh startled him. The room was an oven. His own forehead glistened with perspiration and his shirt was plastered to his back. How could she keep herself so cool and fresh? He took the key, weighted it in his hands.
“I don’t have to sign anything?” he asked.
She laughed softly. “We’re not the Hilton.”
“Yeah… yeah, right.”
“You look very tired, Gabriel Barlow.” Were her last two words taunting or was he imaging it?
“Yes, well, I’ve been driving all day.”
“Where are you heading?”
“ Antalya ,” he lied.
“Ah.” There it was again, that tilt in her voice, as if she could read right through him.
“I don’t have to pay now?”
“Oh, you’ll pay… later.” Her pupils glinted.
Ridiculous. He was not seeing clearly. All he needed was a bath and a meal. And a bottle of raki to make him forget, which he had tucked inside his suitcase among the Sumerian pieces of clay he had got from the dead man. As far as he was concerned, that bottle of raki was the most priceless artifact he possessed right now. Already he could smell the anise, taste it on his lips. Aslan suttu, that’s what they called it here. Lion’s milk. And it was. Milk fit for a lion. It would not only make him forget, it would make him strong.
“Is it possible if I could get something to eat?” he asked politely. It struck him as ironic suddenly, his politeness. He had always been polite. What happens when something goes wrong and a basically good guy commits murder? But then, maybe he was deluding himself. What made him think he’d been so good, after all? What he did was considered one of the worst crimes in this country. If caught he could face life in prison or even the death penalty. He’d spent the last few years of his life lying and stealing… and now this murder. Who cared if he religiously sent money to his mother and two teenaged sisters every month? Who cared if he was gentle and generous with those homeless souls clad in rags he encountered in the streets? Did God care? Does the end ever justify the means?
Steve realized she was watching him intently, a cool smile hovering over her lips.
“Yes, of course,” she said. “I was about to cook some fish on the mangal. I will be happy to bring it to your room once it’s ready.”
He nodded gratefully.
He was about to start for the stairs, but then turned back to her and said, “By the way, there was a big grey cat outside…”
There was something wrong with the whole picture. She was standing so still behind the empty reception desk, her arms hanging stiffly at her sides like a sculpture carved from granite. Completely out of place. He glanced outside through the narrow square window, but only encountered darkness.
“That must have been Jeff,” she said.
He frowned. “Jeff?”
She laughed. “I know. It’s a strange name for a cat, but all my cats have man names, foreign man names. I love foreigners. And I love my cats. I wouldn’t think of giving them anything less than a real name.”
“Hmm… I noticed the silver band on its neck. It looks pretty old.”
“Oh, that’s just a good reproduction.” She made a careless gesture with her hands. “All my cats wear the same reproductions. Only the oldest of them, Gardian, wears the original one--a magnificent piece of jewelry, ancient Sumerian, almost five thousand years old.”
His pulse quickened. He was at loss for words. Was she crazy? Why was she telling him this? Didn’t she know people killed for these things? Unless she was lying. But somehow he didn’t think she was.
“Are you interested in archaeology?” she asked tersely, lifting one slanted brow at him.
“Why else come to Turkey ?” He shrugged, trying to appear indifferent. “But tell me, how many cats do you have?”
“As many as will fit in the cellar. That’s where I keep them.”
“Oh, yes. I heard the noises.”
“They cry sometimes…” Her hazel eyes moved to the stairs, and for an instant her features appeared hard. “They’re spoilt, demanding little creatures sometimes…” She turned back to Steve, her expression softening once more.
“Where’s the oldest cat--Gardian? Also in the cellar?”
She tilted her head, tossing back her onyx black hair, while soft ripples of laughter erupted from her. “Oh, don’t bother looking for him. He’s a tricky one, that one. He’s always hiding.”
In spite of his mood, he smiled back at her. “What does he look like?”
“He’s black, with golden eyes. Like a miniature panther.”
Suddenly she flattened her hands on the desk and leaned forward, her face very close to his. “Meraketme. You might not see him… but he will see you,” she said with wicked playfulness.
Steve was intrigued. Surely this cat talk was nonsense… She was merely flirting with him. A cat named Gardian walking around with a priceless five-thousand-year old necklace hanging around its neck?
His hands tightened on the suitcase. He needed a drink. He couldn’t think clearly without a drink. Besides, he was feeling dazed, disoriented again.
“My name is Dilara. Call me if you need anything. I’ll bring your meal as soon as it’s ready.”
Murmuring thanks, he turned toward the stairs.
Low wailing cries rose from the cellar again, making Steve freeze at mid-step. He glanced over his shoulder to the reception desk, but Dilara was nowhere to be seen.
In the room Steve was taking a mouthful of raki straight from the bottle when he heard an angry voice outside. He looked from the open window. Several cats were walking on top of his car and Dilara seemed to be scolding them, speaking harshly in a language Steve couldn’t recognize. She had her back to him and as she spoke she made stern gestures with her hands. The cats, silver bands glittering around their necks, were mewing back at her. The soft iridescent light of a half moon illuminated the scene.
She turned around suddenly and looked up at him.
Her eyes appeared golden, and in spite of the distance Steve felt them locked themselves into his.
Abruptly he stepped away from the window.
Jesus Christ… Why did he feel as if he had intruded into something sinful, something profoundly intimate? And he could have bet his head on a guillotine that he’d seen her with one of those silver bands around her neck.
To his surprise when he looked back to the room he saw a tabby cat sitting on the bed. It was staring at him with calculated stillness.
“How did you get in here?” Steve whispered, walking over to the bed and sitting down next to it. He petted it for a moment before turning his full attention on the necklace. As with the other cat, it had no clasp. He tried to force it out from the cat’s head, but it was impossible. The strokes and circles were Sumerian, all right. The wedge-shaped appearance of the linear strokes from being pressed into the soft metal by the slanted edge of a Sumerian stylus was unmistakable. But he wasn’t a palaeographer. He couldn’t decipher what it meant. Although he suspected the combination of lines and circles represented numbers. Did each cat have a different number? One thing he was sure of, however. He had never seen a reproduction as good as this. Where had Dilara got them?
There was a knock on the door, and a moment later Dilara came into the room carrying a tray, which she placed on the night table by the bed. Instantly the whole room was filled with the delicious aroma of grilled fish.
“Eric, what are you doing here?” Dilara asked sternly to the cat before Steve could say anything.
The tabby hissed at her, its ears flattening. It leaped down from the bed and darted out of the room.
“Bir sey olmaz, it’s okay,” Steve said, somewhat puzzled by the cat’s reaction. “I like cats.”
“I hope you like palamut,” she said, gesturing to the fish on the plate.
“I love it, thank you,” Steve said, and this was no lie. Then a disturbing thought sprang into his brain… Is this what she fed to the cats?
Three palamut on the plate, a glass of water and a fork, that’s all there was on the tray. What kind of pension was this, where there wasn’t even bread? But this was Heaven for Steve. He was ravenous, and too exhausted to complain or make demands.
“Afiyet olsun,” she told him, which meant ‘Enjoy your meal.’
There was an inscrutable smile on her face as she cast him one last piercing glance and left the room.
Steve devoured the fish in minutes, as if it were his last meal. He poured the raki into the glass half-filled with water and watched the mixture turned from transparent to milky white… thus the name, lion’s milk.
He gave a bitter chuckle. Fish and milk. A cat’s favorite meal.
After draining the glass he lay down on the bed. The raki had worked into his blood. He was calmer now, almost light-headed.
For nearly half an hour he pondered over what had happened in Izmir , reconstructing the whole scene from beginning to end over and over again. Finally, too wearied to think anymore, he closed his eyes.
They are suffering and he can hear their long wailing cries.
Souls, thousands of them, locked up somewhere dark, fighting, devouring each other alive.
And the drums… Perpetual drumming beneath the cries, the rhythm as haunting and ancient and hypnotic as death itself.
Cats leap up and down, left and right, cats of every imaginable color, shape and size, the silver band around their necks almost strangling them. To no avail they twist and turn, trying desperately to take it off.
The sound of the drums is deafening.
And then, thunderstruck, he realizes where he is… and what it all means.
Steve bolted upright, drenched in sweat.
From the open window the moonlight flooded into the room to reveal a tall silhouette standing at the foot of the bed.
“That’s right, little Steve. I am The Gardian … of your conscience. Don’t be too concerned about how crowded it seems. There’s still plenty of space. Now, I’m going to give you your number. It helps maintain a certain kind of order around here.” The maliciousness of the voice raised the hairs at the back of his neck.
Steve fumbled frantically for the light switch by the bed, knocking over the lamp in the process. As he leaped from the bed he saw the shoulders of the silhouette shake with silent laughter.
When he finally managed to turn on the lights he saw Dilara as breathtaking and majestic as he had seen her last night, clad in the same green-and-gold kaftan, her glossy black hair hanging at either sides of her like a veil… except around her neck glinted a silver band carved with inscriptions, the golden hue in her eyes was too iridescent to be normal, and she seemed to be hiding something behind her back.
Her head lowered, Dilara was staring at him from under the fringe of her long lashes when she finally extended her hand with obvious glee to reveal what it was she was hiding: a silver necklace just like the one she and the other cats were wearing, but now the clasp was open and it hung from her hand like an arc.
Steve’s eyes snapped open.
Somewhat breathless, he lifted himself up on his elbows and scanned the room.
The lights were on as he had left them and the aroma of grilled fish and raki still permeated the air. He glanced at his Seiko. 2:45 a.m.
He swung his legs off the bed and sat at the edge of the mattress with his elbows on his thighs and his face in his hands as recollection of the dream rushed through his mind.
Then he lifted his head and ran his hands through his hair.
The whole thing had been so vivid, so real… That perfectly spiteful look as she had stared at him from under the fringe of her lashes… that creamy white hand as she had showed him the open necklace, the nails long and sharp yet feminine with that faint sheen that denotes perfect health…
He sighed. He had never experienced this before… a dream within a dream. Or was it a nightmare within a nightmare?
Yet as terrifying as it had been he had the strong feeling that it was something else what had woke him.
On the wall facing him hung a small square mirror, and for an instant he studied his reflection in it. The face he saw was the typical American face, the wholesome next-door face with blond hair and somewhat surprised, generous blue eyes.
Disturbed, he shifted his gaze to the suitcase, which stood upright against the bed as he’d left it last night. He picked it up and placed it on the bed. Then he opened it.
Several broken pieces of terracotta pottery lay tucked amidst his clothes, the painting on them still beautiful. Dating back to about 3000 B.C., it was called “animal style” because the decoration featured animals. Fish, birds, panthers. When put together the pieces were supposed to form an urn. Elegantly crafted. Yes… he had smuggled many pieces of Sumerian art during the past three years. In some southeastern areas the countryside was filled with them. It was said farmers found them by the dozen as they worked on the land, and it was practically true.
For a long moment Steve became enraptured, gazing at the contents of the suitcase, as if the broken pieces of pottery reflected his very soul.
Then from downstairs came a distinct sound. Howling.
Steve quickly closed the suitcase and rose to his feet. And as he walked toward the door realization dawned on him and he suddenly knew with absolute certainty what had woke him. The howling of cats.
The hall was empty, faintly illuminated by one single bulb hanging from the ceiling. The bulb was swaying slightly.
Mewing, wailing, hissing.
As Steve walked down the hall to the stairs he became vaguely aware that all the doors to the rooms were open and that the rooms were empty. He descended to the lobby and from the corner of his eye saw a flash of black darting down toward the cellar.
Steve halted, stiffening. The noises were louder now, more distinct, as if dozens of cats were engaged in a fight.
He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. It felt even hotter than last night, if such a thing was possible. Funny, it hadn’t felt so hot upstairs in the hall. Here in the empty lobby the door and all the windows were shut. He recalled the sensation of being in a Turkish bath, except there was no steam. The air was so dry it rasped his throat as he breathed.
He turned round the staircase and in slow cautious steps continued his descent to the cellar. As he went down it became darker and darker. He wasn’t sure how many steps there were. They seemed absurd in their endlessness, and he suddenly wondered if it was he who had lost all sense of proportion.
The noises were louder than ever now and for one violent instant the idea of turning around and get the hell out gripped him. But he moved on, propelled by a sense of purpose he couldn’t understand.
Finally the steps finished and he reached a closed door. His hands felt the old wood and groped for some sort of handle, but there wasn’t any. The noise was deafening. He flattened his hands against it and, holding his breath, pushed.
As soon as the door gave in the noises abruptly stopped.
Steve found himself in a vast cavernous chamber dimly lit by a single flickering torch propped up against a distant wall.
In the center, regally poised like the Phinx of Ghiza, sat a black cat with golden eyes, the silver band on its neck glowing exquisitely under the flickering torch.
The rest of the chamber was perfectly empty.
An icy silence engulfed him. The only sound came from his own heavy breathing. He was panting.
Steve stared with widened eyes at the cat, then at the stone walls around him. Where were the cats? What had happened to the noises he’d heard only a few seconds ago?
“Gardian…” Steve whispered. But he was enraged. He wanted to clamp his hands around the cat’s neck and strangle it. He wanted to cut off its head. Cut it off and kick it and send it flying across the chamber and get rid of the ironic contempt and accusation in its eyes.
Steve darted forward for the cat, his hands trembling and swollen and feeling twice their size. But as soon as he found himself standing where the cat had been he realized it had vanished. With his hands pressed against either side of his head he turned round and round, the chamber itself seeming to swallow him in its own vast darkness.
He gasped, the air so hot now it scalded his lungs.
A mournful animal outcry echoed across the chamber, an outcry filled with pain and hate and fear. He brought his hands to his neck and tugged at the metal thing that was choking him.
As the cries reached a fierce crescendo he twisted and struggled.
His legs buckled and he dropped to the floor. And on his knees, with his hands fastened on his neck and his head tilted upwards, his soul shuddered with one last horrible spasm as he understood the noises were coming from himself.
About Mayra Calvani: "I’m the author of eight books, as well as a book reviewer and freelance writer. My book, The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing, won last year’s ForeWord Best Book of the Year Award and is currently required reading at 3 universities. My other credits include book reviews, short fiction and articles published in publications such as El Nuevo Dia newspaper, The Bloomsbury Review, Blogcritics Magazine, LatinoLA, Enigmatic Tales, Twilight Times Ezine, Long Story Short, Oh My News International, Scribe & Quill, Writer Gazette, New Mystery Reader, Absolute Write, Musing: A Magazine of Words, Children’s Writers Coaching Club, BizyMoms.com, and Guardian Angel Kids. I also write how-to articles for Demand Studios."
You can visit her Web site to learn more.