Story: Michael DiBaggio | Illustrations: Shell Presto
Taken day by day, the life of a masked vigilante is kind of boring. Between the big showdowns, the busted capers, and the close brushes with death, there’s a lot of waiting for trouble, and most often trouble doesn’t trouble to happen. The truth is there’s an awful lot of running around for what seems like no good reason. At least that’s the way it is with me, here in the ‘Burgh.
Once in a while, though, you stumble into something worth talking about. Let me tell you about one of those times.
This was only a little while after I unexpectedly expressed during the fight with the spray paint vandals. My scrapes and black eyes were healed and I had been back in action for a little while. I had updated my outfit to something that looked a little less like it came from a burglar’s wardrobe by adding some bright blue trim and trading in the ski mask for a hooded sweatshirt that I stitched an eye mask onto. After too much trouble getting the eyeholes to stay where I wanted them, I bought a pair of slick-looking smart goggles to hold the mask in place. I was starting to look like a real superhero.
Alex had joined me on two patrols, but he wasn’t with me this night, probably because it was getting terminally boring. But I was confident that a change of scenery would fix that.
You see, the first time I put on the mask, I went out thinking that I would strictly focus on my neighborhood, the way Technophile sticks to the North Side, or how in Meridian Harbor nearly every covenant community has a superhero. But now it was obvious that there just wasn’t enough crime in my part of Shadyside to merit even a part-time vigilante. If I wanted to be more than the talent equivalent of a mall rent-a-cop, I’d have to go where life was dangerous. I’d have to go to the wrong side of the tracks. Literally.
A railroad spur cuts through a place called Panther Hollow, near Schenley Park, forming the boundary between the Oakland and Squirrel Hill neighborhoods. From there it runs to a big Chesapeake & Kanawha switching yard along the northern bank of the Monongahela, which, at that location, forms a fat bulge almost half as wide as Squirrel Hill. Despite being such a big open area, there’s almost nothing there besides the switching yard: no people, no buildings, not even any trees or grass. Everyone calls it The Blight. Supposedly it was poisoned by the Martians during the siege a hundred years ago and it’s never been fit for living things to grow there since then; sort of like what happened to Baltimore, I guess. It’s about the bleakest place in Pittsburgh.
Bordering the Blight, just above the limit of the contamination where brown scrub grass and stunted, sickly looking trees can grow, is the remains of the old neighborhood of Hazelwood. Some of the first homesteads in the city were built there, and once upon a time it was tidy and peopled with salt-of-the-earth types. Now, Hazelwood is poor, run-down, and crime-ridden, and the only people who live there are those who can’t get out. The Blight and the railroad tracks keep it relatively isolated from the rest of the city, and although some folks may say otherwise, that’s just the way the rest of the city wants to keep it. At the time, I thought that maybe all the place needed was a superhero—but I was pretty naive back then.
I left my house at midnight and rode my bike through Greenfield, passing through the wide wooded gap that divided Hazelwood from the rest of the city. I remembered the woods looking pretty from the crests of the hills in Schenley Park, but right then they felt a lot creepier, even threatening. The night was nearly moonless and inky dark, and the breadth of the wood, though no more than a quarter mile in reality, looked endlessly deep and primeval. Worse was the way the dense growth deadened all the normal sounds of the city. I pedaled my fastest to get through it, eager for the familiar glow of electric lights and the hum of traffic.
Hazelwood, as I have said, is a dump, and as I zoomed past the first few blocks of dilapidated houses I felt that I had judged the creepy woods too harshly. This part of the neighborhood seemed every bit as desolate. Three of the first four street lamps I passed were busted, and the few windows that weren’t boarded up were knocked out, revealing long-abandoned interiors. A little further on, I began to see signs of human activity: for instance, the jalopy that ran a red light at 40 miles per hour, missing my back tire by a nose hair and nearly bringing a promising vigilante career to a premature end. The four fine specimens in the car thrust out various body parts and shouted their opinions about “bike-riding queers.” Their unique dialect only barely resembled the English with which I was familiar, so I allow that I might have missed their apology.
I coasted down a narrow side street, hopped off my bike and just crouched for a minute on shaking legs, trying to compose myself. All of a sudden, I heard an awful inhuman screeching. I ran in the direction of the sound halfway down the block when I heard it again, louder this time. It sounded like a cat being skinned alive. And I say that because, well…
I looked across an overgrown, rubble-strewn lot, where a row house used to be. Within the decayed ruin of the foundation were four men, probably about my age judging by their slang and the way they dressed. One of them had a long knife in one hand, and in the other the back legs of a flailing cat.
I can’t tell you exactly what happened next. Hell, I might not even have known what I was doing as I did it. The only thing I’m certain of is that I gave no warning, said nothing at all until I was right on top of the one with the knife. I had him on the dirt, was straddling his ribs. He had to have dropped the knife and the cat because he was waving both of his bloody hands in front of his face, trying to ward off my fists. I used both arms, and I used them until my lungs burned and pain shot up from my split knuckles, and even then I went on pounding. I think a hand grabbed my hood and tried to drag me back, but I flung an elbow and the pulling stopped, and I went back to punching for what seemed like hours. More than once I missed that ugly head and pounded my fists straight into the ground. Eventually something hard bounced off the front of my skull and knocked me off of him. I squeezed my eyes shut from the pain and rolled sideways, instinctively trying to avoid another attack. I felt the gash rippling on my forehead and the blood seeping into my mask. For the first time, I remembered that I had powers, but my head hurt too badly to use them. Then I remembered the telescoping stun baton on my waist. I ripped it from the holster, flicked my wrist to bring it to full extension. My finger tightened on the trigger as I blindly swung it around me. I could hear the whip-cracks of electricity slinging from probe to probe, see the ultra-bright flashes of minute thunderbolts through my closed eyes.
When I finally got back to my feet and opened my eyes, there wasn’t anybody there to hit. I saw the limping, bleeding cat and the fragments of cinder block that broke against my head. Aside from some footprints in the moist clay, there was no sign of the quartet of teenage sociopaths, not even the one I had pinned.
I got lucky again. Damn lucky. It was almost a repeat of the fight with the vandals. I went off half-cocked, not thinking, not even making the most of the tools I had with me. If the creep I tackled hadn’t dropped his blade, or if one of his friends had picked it up, they might have buried it in my ribs. Or that cinder block might have been aimed at the soft part of my skull and I might have gone down for good.
But some things you just react to, and there’s no helping it.
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I’m a dog guy, never really liked cats. But the deep and true parts of me were not about to stand there and let that happen, even if stopping it cost me the farm. Cruelty to animals ate at me in a way that cruelty to other people just didn’t. I believe I was mad enough that if those monsters had stuck around, I might have murdered them, and only a little faster than the way they were trying to murder that cat.
The cat hissed and swiped at me when I bent down next to it, but the poor thing was too injured and weak to get away. I cradled it against my chest, stroked its back softly where the bloody fur was already matting together. I hushed it and told it that everything was going to be alright, though I had no idea how badly he was injured or where I could go for help at that hour.
As I wondered about that, something moved across my peripheral vision. Inthe instant my eyes caught it, I saw that it was big, man-sized at least. The sociopaths were coming back to fight, after all. I trotted backwards, still holding the cat close, and bent down to grab the shock stick.
‘No,’ I thought. ‘Can’t be them.’ I belatedly realized that the figure, whatever it was, seemed to be loping along on four legs. It was probably a neighborhood dog on the loose. The cat hissed and yowled again, as if in sudden fear.
“Relax, buddy, you’ll be okay,” I whispered.
Something crunched with a heavy tread on the loose dirt behind me and the air filled with the roar of a hungry cougar. You hear that bloodcurdling cry once in a movie or at the zoo, and it stays with you for the rest of your life.
The wildly thrashing cat slipped out of my grasp when I spun around. I didn’t look down to pick it back up, and I am ashamed to say that for several hours I did not think of that cat at all. And that sound I heard, the thing that stood before me poised to pounce, was not a mountain lion.
I told you I couldn’t remember everything that happened in the fight, but I can paint you a picture of this thing and not leave out a single detail, from the sickly yellow color of the saliva that dripped from its bear-trap mouth to the mottled, grey folds of its wrinkled skin. Its whiskered, blunt-snouted skull towered more than a foot above my head. The thing stood up on two legs, though the legs were jointed in the wrong direction for a man, like the hind paws of a quadruped. The creature was mostly hairless with scattered patches of matted fur, like it had mange. Maybe it resembled a Sphynx cat, but only if Sphynx were seven feet tall with the jaws of a jaguar and long, human fingers. Let’s call a spade a spade and get it out of the way: I was staring down a werecat.
The beast hissed through its yellow fangs and slashed at me. I don’t know how it missed me because it was so close I felt its breath on my neck, but miss me it did, and I ran for my life. I ran past where I’d left my bike and had to double back in a panic. Once more I saw it leap out from around the corner of the empty lot, bounding towards me on all four legs. I jumped on the bike, switched on the electric assist, and shot out onto the main street without even a thought about oncoming traffic. My leg muscles were already on fire, but I didn’t stop pedaling until I was more than halfway home and the hills became too steep and too frequent to conquer. I glided home on the motor and prayed to God that I had been hallucinating.
It was quarter to two when I got back home. Luckily, nobody was awake to see me stagger through the back door in my Torrent costume, forehead caked with dried blood. I tested the locks on every door and window before limping up to my bedroom, and I locked that door, too.
A little while later, I got up the nerve to go to the bathroom and clean myself up. The cut wasn’t that bad after I washed all the blood away, though I had a noticeable lump. I cleaned and bandaged the cut and mostly forgot about it. The werecat was another matter entirely.
I was too tuned up with adrenaline and fear to try sleeping, so I spent the rest of the night in my room trying to come to terms with what I’d seen. I wanted a rational explanation for it. I wondered if it might not have been a really intense flash of psychometry, but I quickly dismissed that idea. What the hell sort of memory would that have been? And besides, I had never had a psychometric impression that was so completely indistinguishable from my own vision.
I turned to the Grid for answers. If you’ve ever searched for ‘werecat,’ you know the sort of obscene garbage I had to wade through. The first thing I found that made any sense and wasn’t drawn from the perverse fantasies of a disturbed teenager suggested that I had run into a Moreau. It seemed obvious, but the more I thought about it, the less convinced I became. The human-animal hybrids were rare: Life Haven, a clade that advocates for Moreau rights, estimated their population to be less than 10,000 in the whole world. They also tended to live amongst their own kind, in small isolated communities in rural areas. It wasn’t out of the question that there might be some wild, atavistic Moreau on the loose in Hazelwood, but it seemed unlikely.
I followed some other tracks, but most of what I found was hearsay, light on facts and big on credulous speculation. At the other end of the spectrum, and of equally little help, were the scoffers: the Houdini Center admitted no knowledge of shapeshifters or therianthropy, and called it delusion and superstition. The most interesting thing I found that night was on the gridnode of a small paranormal research group from New Jersey, the Institute for Metaphysical and Phenomenological Studies (makes a cute acronym, doesn’t it?). They provided the case files of the late Dr. John Silence, the famous psychic investigator. Two of these, both from the 1920s, seemed relevant. In the first, Silence and his assistant Hubbard directly encounter a shapeshifter on an isolated island in the Baltic Sea. Silence explained the wild wolf form as, I crap you not, the ectoplasmic nocturnal emissions of a sexually frustrated teenager. You think that sounds absurd? So did I, but the evidence he put forward made a believer out of me.
What I didn’t know then, what I couldn’t have known until I first got slimed by Meryl, was that this theory couldn’t explain what I encountered, since ectoplasm lights up my Eerie—my sixth sense—like a light bulb. The sensation is overwhelming. I didn’t get anything like that. To tell the truth, I don’t remember getting any psychometric impressions at all.
Silence’s second case dealt with the remarkable account of an unremarkable man, an English nebbish named Arthur Vezin, who minutely describes his capture by, and narrow escape from, a Satanic cult of humanoid werecats in a rural French hamlet. Vezin’s account is frankly terrifying, but Dr. Silence wasn’t much impressed by it. After an uncharacteristically terse investigation into Vezin’s background and a visit to the town of the alleged French werecats, Silence wrote off the event as entirely hallucinatory, the product of an overstressed man’s delusional break with reality. I was miffed at this curt dismissal of a horrifically vivid and earnest account, probably in large measure because I imagined Dr. Silence making the same verdict about my adventure in Hazelwood. But he would have been dead wrong. I wasn’t overstressed, I never thought about werecats, and I sure as hell wasn’t a nebbish.
But I began to doubt myself, and the doubt set my thinking down a fruitful path. My recollections of the beast seemed so surreal, almost like they’d been superimposed on my memories. Why was the image of the cat-thing so clear in my mind? The night had been so dark, and the lot was half in shadow even from the nearby streetlight. Hadn’t it been dark enough that the four punks didn’t see me come upon them until it was too late? Hadn’t it been too dark for one of them to pick up the knife and use on me? And it was so dark that I couldn’t even see their faces, except for the one I was right on top of. How could the werecat have stood out so distinctly, as if I’d run into it in broad daylight?
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It dawned on me that I couldn’t have seen what I thought I saw, the way I thought I saw it. I wasn’t delusional, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t hallucinating.
At dawn, I girded my loins and went back out to investigate my hypothesis, but this time I went as Sebastian Pereira, not Torrent. Physically, I was exhausted, but my brain was racing too fast to let me sleep. Besides, the evidence I was looking for wouldn’t wait around for a nap.
Downstairs, my dad was already up; a disgusting habit brought on by youth on a farm and adulthood as an entrepreneur. He was sitting at the kitchen table and looked up at me over the rim of a cup of coffee so black it would’ve woken six out of seven Ephesian martyrs by scent alone. “Noon already?” he said dryly.
“Well timed and expertly delivered. I actually haven’t gone to sleep yet.”
“What happened to your head?”
“Oh, nothing much. Some delinquents hit me with a brick,” I said, trying to sound arch.
He sighed and shook his head. “There’s barely room enough for one wiseass in this house, son.”
‘I knew that would work,’ I thought, smiling. ‘Well, if the truth isn’t good enough…’
“I fell off my bike,” I said. “I don’t think it’s bad, but I wasn’t going to risk a coma by going to sleep.”
He gave my head a good look-over. Satisfied, he said, “I should have never let your mother teach you to ride a bike. Where are you going?”
“Just wanted to check up on something before I sleep the afternoon away.”
He shot me a stern look. “You promised you’d take care of the yard work today.”
“I promised you the yard work would get done, not specifically that I would do it,” I corrected him. “Don’t worry, it’ll get done. See you later.”
In retrospect, I went out rather unprepared; I even forgot my stun baton. But I was counting on the daylight reducing to a minimum the incidence of werecats and random street violence. Fortunately, I made it to the lot without anyone bothering me or even trying to run me over. I jumped down into the dugout from the sidewalk and sniffed around for tracks.
The clay soil was wet and the impressions of feet and other indentations were well preserved in the soft, bare ground. I recognized my boot prints and the treads of many sneakers, the paw prints of dogs, and in a couple of different spots I saw what I thought were some clumps of bloody fur from the poor housecat. Absolutely nowhere did I see the monster footprints required of a seven-foot-tall ailuranthrope. Unless that thing was literally covering its tracks (and why would it bother?), it could not have been a Moreau or a manbeast of any sort. Even an ectoplasmic construct would’ve had to leave tracks commensurate with its mass and the shape of its feet.
I went home and had my sleep, but not before slipping $5 to my enterprising 12-year-old neighbor to get the lawn mowed. At nightfall, I visited Hazelwood again as Torrent. Besides my usual kit, I packed a jar of holy water blessed by Father Dan last Easter and a silver serving dish that I slipped, unnoticed, from the china cabinet, just in case my hunch was wrong. Admittedly, I had no idea if any of that stuff really worked, but hey, this job is more art than science. And before I left, I beseeched the intercession of St. Michael by the prayer that had never yet failed me, calling upon him to defend me in battle and to thrust Satan into Hell, and all his pals with him.
I felt prepared and confident of everything but how I could get the attention of my nemesis.
Hours passed as I staked out the lot and cycled loops around the neighborhood, but there were no monster cat people to be found. There was no other obviously nefarious activity either, though I sighted a dozen instances of malum prohibitum that I could have cracked down on if I was the type of dogwhistle to do things like that (here’s looking at you, Crimebuster!). I was getting worried that someone might rob an all-night convenience store and I’d have to call off the hunt. Then an idea came to me.
I walked up and down the darkened backstreets around the empty lot. The street was still, quiet, and I thought most of the buildings were abandoned. I dialed up the little speakers on my mobi as far as they’d go and started playing recordings of mewling cats that I found on the Grid. Nothing stirred save for a few cats whose eye-glow I spied on top of ledges and behind piles of garbage. For about ten minutes I went on walking and playing the sounds, and then I decided to play something a little more extreme: a recording of a pair of cats fighting. Their frenzied, shrill screams were startlingly loud in the calm silence of the main streets, and even I jumped at them, momentarily surprised.
My Eerie buzzed, low and subtle at first. Immediately, I heard the rapid patter of a heavy tread —no alley cat, this one—followed by that heart-stopping roar.
I spun around, the extended shock-stick in my right hand and the jar of holy water in my left, and watched the beast lope down the alley toward me. It was huge and slavering, its glowing eyes leaving a green trail in the darkness as its head bobbed. I told myself that I mustn’t panic, that it wasn’t real—but all my certainty and self-confidence flew away like a balloon with the air let out once I saw those four inch claws spring out of its paws.
I thrust out with baton and flung the holy water, psychically dragging the spray of liquid into the beast’s eyes. I felt contact on the end of the rod and then it reeled back, yowling and hissing. Suddenly, that animal screeching started to sound a lot like a screaming woman.
The werecat was gone: it was there one instant and just flashed out of existence the next. On the ground in front of me was a bony woman with damp, dirty blonde hair and an expression of horror on her deeply creased face. She looked so despondent and helpless that I pitied her despite all the adrenaline pumping through my veins. I stopped the juice and yanked the baton back.
My hunch had been right. It was just a telepathic illusion, not a real werecat—if there even were such things— and 100,000 volts was enough to disrupt her broadcast. That’s why I could see the details so clearly even in the dark, and why it left no tracks in the mud, or at least no inhuman tracks. Only I had suspected it was one of the cat-skinning lowlifes I chased away last night, not this terrified, middle-aged lady in dingy, frumpy clothes.
“He was my cat!” she cried—cried literally, anguished tears pouring down her cheeks. She was shaking, choking with rage and misery. “Why?!” she screamed again. “Why?! He was so sweet! He never hurt anyone!”
“Oh, God.” I breathed, more a prayer than an exclamation. “It wasn’t me. I-I tried to stop them. I don’t know who they were. Is your cat…?”
I couldn’t finish the sentence, but the way she started sobbing right then, I knew what the answer was and I knew I didn’t care for it. I dropped the empty bottle and the stick and walked over beside her. She recoiled from me as I bent down to help her up. I felt ashamed and disgusted.
“I’m sorry.” I cringed at how useless that sounded, but I said it again. “I’m sorry I hurt you. I’m sorry for what they did to your cat.”
She punched me weakly in the chest and broke loose. I watched her run down the alley and disappear into the shadows.
‘My first victory against another talent,’ I thought, and laughed mirthlessly. What a sick, sad joke.
And I wished I knew where to find those four teenagers.
The story you’ve just read is an excerpt from After Dark, a novel of teenage superheroics on the eerie side of Pittsburgh. Buy the book online or learn about the other ways you can support us.