A Game of Mouse and Cats
Victor Verdun is fifty years old. He sits at his desk thinking, looking despondent. The picture of a grizzled man with an ungroomed beard and tired eyes. He carries a face which spoke of the lack of sleep he’d been getting. The face of a man in the grip of an obsession.
These last couple of months had done him no good. He’d let himself go. What was once clean, lean and muscular had become heavy, smudged and floppy. For as long as five years now he’d been the sole detective working at the local Indian police station. The past few months, they’d been tracking down a trio of serial killers who plagued their streets. Victor is no greenhorn. He knows this job to be one which requires backup. Years of languorous work and failed attempts had taught him at least this much. But this time, this time is different. This time is personal. Those three murderers had killed his wife in cold blood. And so, he gets up from his chair as he prepares to head out.
Around three months ago. On an unseasonably hot autumn night. Gloria’d been alone, Victor at work. That’s the type of man he is. Hooked to his job, trying to wring meaning out of life through self-exertion. She’d known. She’d never been mad at him for it. No. She understood him. She’d had a job too, and like Victor, was prone to late-nights of work at the office. We formed a perfect duo, thought Victor.
The day she died, she woke up at one in the morning. Jerked awake by the whistle of a breeze coming from their downstairs living-room. After which, she’d gotten out of bed and decided to check up on it. How strange, she’d thought. Never had she heard that noise in their house before. They’d weaselled their way in through one of the windows, smashing glass and ushering whistling breeze in. Already, they’d began stealing things when she’d came up to them with lamp in hand. She froze in her tracks then. Seeing the outline of their silhouettes in the dark. Strike first, think later! was what their instinct told them. It’d happened many times before, in many other houses. They’d been used to it. How this time could be any different than other times eluded them. They’d never suspected she might’ve been a detective’s wife.
Victor’s wife was left bleeding out in a neighbouring gutter. They’d not finished the job. No, that wasn’t their style. She was incapable of moving. They’d known time would take care of it. That was how she’d died. In the company of rats, hidden from sight, in silence and darkness and filth. It was their modus operandi. Time, their reliable accomplice, an accessory to their crimes, always took care of it. And, as days clocked by Victor began to suspect time was protecting them and made sure they weren’t caught. Eventually though, Gloria’s body was found. After a long month of searches. Battered, bruised and unrecognizable – rats had begun eating away at it. Police concluded she’d died two weeks ago. Scientists in criminology went to work, Victor made sure of it, until they’d managed to find a trail. This crime was coupled to a few others which had occurred recently in the city. There was a pattern. Crimes with a similar modus operandi. These three men were recidivists. Serial killers.
A week ago, he’d confirmed the whereabouts of their lair. And now, Victor finally had them within his grasp. Vengeance was at a hand’s length away. Since then, he stayed in a small guest house nearby, biding his time and awaiting the perfect moment.
A street urchin had come to the police station looking for him one week ago. The urchin wore crummy clothes. He struck Victor as being very young, scrawny and sickly. He reported that only two nights ago, he’d seen the trio of criminals stroll into a small house. It was lodged between two tall buildings down in Sufren street, not far from his own. They’d likely been returning from another evening of wrongdoings. Those three were known for being wary and distrustful people. They’d have killed the child had they seen him. This one though, they missed.
Victor sits at his desk. Thinking. This is a blunder they’ll pay for dearly, he resolved, he got up from his chair and prepared to head out, grabbing his gun.
The day he decided to go rogue and take care of matters alone, Victor took off his badge and left without a word. For a whole week after this, he disappeared from the lives of all who knew him.
Steeling himself, he enters the premises of their den. Gun cocked and at the ready, eyes tensed with concentration. Muted steps carry him past the door. He creeps into their living-room, does a roll, hides behind a sofa below a window. He inhales. And, ready to make them pay for their dastardly deeds, jumps out, all guns blazing. Victor was sure he’d seen them enter through this way only fifteen minutes ago. He’d seen shadows move from behind the shutters. But, as he stood there pointing his gun at thin air, he understood, there was no one in. The house remained motionless under his gaze. Soothing his nerves, he began surveying the place. Soon, a noise came from outside; the sound of hushed voices, orders and wheezing horses.
Victor partly parts the shutters and peers out the window. Outside, the air is thin and murky. Driftwood floats atop the cold river surface which runs through town. The sound of horses galloping down pebbled streets rents open the night in half. From afar, Victor sees the back of a lone rider astride his steed. The rider is heading straight for the outskirts of town. Their frame reminds Victor of Gloria’s own – short, delicate, with tapering limbs and a large waist. An overall stocky appearance. The mere comparison makes Victor sag into nostalgia. The rider wears long trousers, rife with pleats, and a pair of rawhide boots strapped into the stirrups of their saddle. In the span of but a few seconds, rider and horse disappear. The veil of night covering their tracks. All noise abates. Victor shuts the curtains, letting his shoulders slump along his sides. He turns from the window and back to the room. They’re gone now. He groans. A sunken look on his face, displays the depth of his anguish. Escaped out ov’a hidden back door, he suspects. He’d checked, of course, made certain. There were supposed to be no escape routes. Yet now there they were, completely gone. And here he was feeling angry with himself. Attempting to calm down he begins familiarising himself with his surroundings.
Opposite him is a four-legged table. With one of its four sides pushed against a wall. Three chairs flanking each of the three free sides. Their lengthy legs draw shadows of crosses across the living room floor as they intertwine. When he touches their seats, he feels a certain warmth emanate from them. On the table are plates. Resting upon which are half-eaten slabs of bread. Slathered with melted ghee, cream and blood-red jam. They rest limply at their centre. Greasy strips of bacon sit in a separate plate, assailed by a family of flies. No one would eat them now. They left in such a hurry, seeing this amuses him. But his mind keeps wandering back to the horse rider and their eerie resemblance to his wife. The more he thinks about it, the more the two seem alike. A bright white light flickers overhead. Each flicker sending blinding spears flying into Victor’s eyes and into the room. Revealing a large array of articles and newspaper cut-outs that have been tacked across the walls. Victor plods away from the table. With his hat obliquely placed over his head and his long pelt coat drifting smoothly over the wooden floor. Wooden planks creak under his weight. Already broken glass breaks further below the soles of his boots. Wailing warnings which, resonate with Victor’s current pained and broken mental state. As he nears the entranceway, he detects a trace of cigarette smoke. They’d even had the time to smoke. They’d known he was coming, had prepared in advance, had laughed with contempt at his attempt, had rejoiced at his impending failure. They’re probably laughing right now, reckons Victor. The red mist descends upon him then. And he draws closer to the flight of stairs facing the doorway. He supposes he might as well have a look at what sordid objects lay upstairs before calling the police to apologise. He would have to find a good excuse. A stench of cabbage permeates the air at the staircase’s feet. Warding against cleanliness and justice. Victor grabs the railing and heavs himself forth. It’s hot, mucky and uncomfortable. As he moves forward, he feels sweat rise from the walls at his sides. Reaching the landing, the temperature seems to abruptly increase.
In the silence of the deserted dwelling, Victor pauses at the landing as he hears a sound. It travels down the stairs from the first-floor. With caution heavy in his heart, he trudges on and arrives in the upper-floor room. There is a kitchen. He’d found the source of cabbage fetor it seemed. Yet Victor perceives another odour mingling with the putrid cabbage smell. Something resembling a melange of sulphur and rotten eggs. He looks around and notics the oven open. Timid metallic clicks issue out its gapping mouth in a metronome-like rhythm. Inviting him to dance. A hob and a set of four dark burners brood above the stove. Gleaming with the grease covering them. One of the knobs of the hob points in a different direction from its twins. It’s rebellious. Invisible flames burn and dance, jutting from its sides, vying for oxygen and a spark. The oven keeps clicking, each click producing specks of light. Sweat drips down Victor’s forehead, falls from his jaw-line and plops to the ground. Now he knows. They hadn’t just escaped. They want to kill me! Again, the oven clicks, this time more resolutely. By now, he is already running but… too late. From behind he hears a bubbling explosion, feels the scorch of flames crawling through the air on his back. He has reached the top of the staircase and is about to hurtle himself down its steps when, suddenly, nothing. Nothing more.
As everything disappears, Victor finds his mind wandering back to the rider again. And suddenly he thinks, No! That’s not possible. All this time, he’d been caught in a game of mouse and cats. Not a game of cat and mice.