A cold moon shone over the streets of St. Louis. The light reflected in the dark glass of the quiet office buildings. It shone on the surface of the Mississippi River, travelling quietly down its course on the winter night. And it glistened in the pool of blood spreading under the dying man lying on a quiet street. His trembling hand tried in vain to quench the flow seeping from the gunshot wound in his stomach, but he was growing too weak to apply the necessary force. Usually he was so careful, but he hadn’t seen the mugger coming. He hadn’t heard him either. But he had given him everything he wanted. Why had he still shot?
He couldn’t look down at the wound. He was already light-headed, and the sight of the blood brought him to the edge of unconsciousness. He knew that if he passed out now, he would not wake up. Instead, he gazed up at the harsh, pale face of the moon, praying someone had heard the shot and would call for help. But he heard no sirens. He saw no flashing lights. He turned his head in a desperate search for someone, anyone, on the street that he could beg for help. There was no one. No one that could help, at any rate. A white cat lingered in a nearby alcove, watching him with eyes shining in the moonlight. The man let out a low moan, and turned his eyes back to the cool moon.
Things were growing hazy now. The clear lunar sphere took on a more amorphous shape; a formless glow against the black. The flow dripping through his hands had begun to slow now, too, which filled him with a sense of dread. He grew terribly cold. As he began to shiver violently, he felt something brush against his leg. Glancing down as best he could, he saw the white cat rubbing affectionately against his legs. A warmth, a beautiful calming heat began to spread from the contact, travelling up his legs. One paw, then another, and another, and another were on his chest. He could no longer see the moon, instead finding himself gazing up at the dual moons of the cat’s eyes. Settling itself gently down on the man’s chest, the cat began to purr. That same sweet warmth that was moving up his legs filled the man’s chest, spreading to the wound, taking away the pain. Stretching its neck down, the cat nuzzled the man’s chin. His head filled with that same fuzzy, comfortable feeling of lying in the summer sun. The man closed his eyes, took one more breath, and drifted into the darkness.
When he opened his eyes once more, he saw the cat sitting next to him, licking the red blood from its ivory paws. Glancing at the man, the cat stretched its back and spoke. “You’ll find you can sit up now, my friend.”
“You can stand as well. Please, do stand. I would like to give you more time, but I am afraid time is not a luxury we possess.”
Setting aside the marvel of a magical talking cat for the moment, the man tried to stand and found that he could do so with an ease he had not possessed since childhood. No gunshot wounds. Not even the sore hip that had been bothering him since is forty-fourth birthday. “Hah! I don’t know if I’ve gone crazy, or who or what you are, but thank you! I really thought that was it for me. I...I haven’t felt this good in years!”
“Ah. Well, I do hate to disappoint you my friend, but I am no healer.” With this, the cat approached and rubbed itself against the man’s leg. Following the cat with his eyes, he saw, laying on the ground at his feet, his own body, staring up sightless into the night sky.
“But if… if that’s me,” he asked, more in a tone of wonder than fear, “if that’s me, then what am I?”
“Hmm. Not very artfully put, but I take your meaning. You are still you, but the form you have now is a temporary one. Think of it as an echo, or a memory, if you will. But it will not last, I am afraid. Oh dear, you are already beginning to dissipate, we have lingered here too long. We must get you to the River. You had best follow me, my friend, and with haste, unless you would like to be stuck here forever formless.” The cat moved down the road and the man followed.
“So, are you an angel? Or a… a devil?”
“Neither, fortunately for you. I have read your human books and I find both of them rather dreadful. No, I am something more akin to a guide. You can call me Charon if you wish. Some of your lot seem to get some enjoyment from that.”
“Charon, like, the ferryman? In hell? Are you taking me to hell?”
“Don’t be silly. I have already told you we are going to the River. You should be glad though, that you found yourself with me instead of my brother. There is a reason all your legends are of hell hounds rather than hell cats. Down this way, my friend.” They were leaving the road, following a path down a gentle slope. The sounds of the river grew louder.
“I really wish I could’ve stayed a bit longer.”
“I understand, but think of it this way. You went out on a high note, as you people say. Well, except for that last bit of unfortunate business. Aside from that, things were going as well for you as they generally do for humans. Much better to go that way than as one of those poor souls that truly want to go. Always reaching and grasping for me, ruffling my fur. It takes days to get that scent off. Ah, almost there, my friend.” A set of cobblestone steps led down to the waterfront.
“I just don’t understand why he shot me. I gave him what he wanted.”
“Yes, that was a very unfortunate choice on his part. He will not be seeing the River today. Or ever.” They stood on a stone platform, jutting out into the river. The man had never seen this on his walks before, but he had a feeling he wouldn’t have been able to see it even if he had been looking. On the far side stood a stone arch with steps descending into the gently flowing river itself.
“Just down there, if you please, my friend.”
“What’s down there?”
“I’m afraid I am not well equipped to explain it to you. But as you can see, the current is easy, and I have a feeling that you will find peaceful seas past the delta.” Charon rubbed against the man’s leg once more, and even suffered the man to give him a few gentle pats on his head. The man slowly took the first few steps down into the river. When the water was at his chest, he closed his eyes, sighed, and plunged beneath the current.
Charon watched the flow for a moment before the serenity was broken by the sound of another gunshot. His ears flattened back against his head, his hackles rose, and he turned once again towards the city. A few streets over from where the man’s body still laid, Charon came upon a young woman, dark hair stained darker still by the blood seeping from her shoulder. He rubbed along her side as he passed her, but his appointment was not with her. She would live. Creeping along the shadows a few blocks more, Charon spotted the mugger huddling in a dark alley. His hockey mask was pulled to the top of his head, with blonde locks falling into his hungry eyes as he rifled through the wallet and purse from his two victims. Placing himself at the alleyway entrance, Charon crouched and spoke into the darkness.
“Garmr, you’d best come quickly, my brother. I have a gift for you. I hope you are hungry.”
Sirens wailed in the distance, drawing quickly closer. “Shit,” muttered the mugger as he rose quickly and ran for the entrance. At just the moment he took a step into the street, Charon darted from his hiding place and tangled himself between the mugger’s feet. Purse in one hand, gun still in the other, the mugger flailed, trying to catch himself. As he brought up his hands to break his fall, the barrel of the weapon caught under his chin and he came down on the gun, butt first. A bang, a flash of light, and the cold blackness took the mugger.
When he saw again, his eyes were filled with flashing blue and red lights. Panicking, the mugger darted back into the alley and hid behind a dumpster. His head was throbbing with pain, and he could hear the sound of officer’s voices from the entrance.
“Well, looks like this asshole did our job for us.”
“Too bad, I would’ve liked to blow this fucker away myself.”
Confused, the mugger peaked from behind the dumpster. The two policemen were standing in the entrance looking down on a prone body. His body. His mind was reeling from the confusion and the pain when he heard the low growl from deep in the alley behind him. Turning slowly, his eyes locked on to a pair of glowing red eyes set above white, wet fangs that glistened in the moonlight. Paralyzed, he saw them grow closer. And then closer still.
And then he saw no more.