Horror Suspense

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Luigi Molinari felt spryer than usual when he got out of bed that morning, despite the falling snow. It was as if a youthful tide of energy had washed over him, restoring the last twenty years of his life. His brain hummed, his skin sang, and he felt a renewed kindness for the animals in his care. They were his whole purpose for living, ever since his beloved Maria had departed.

           The beasts were strangely silent this morning. Not only that, the solar power seemed to be down, probably due to the overcast skies that had preceded the snowstorm. As he stumbled around in the dark putting on clothing, he strained to hear the tiger’s growl or the apes’ chatter.

           Luigi had come to this chilly country from the balmy seaside village where he’d learned the skills of zookeeping from his father, whose own father had built and filled one of the first “wild animal habitats,” featuring humane environments rather than zoo cages.

           Coming to work at this zoo had been a rude awakening for Luigi. Instead of what he was used to—a vast open landscape surrounded by secure fencing, where visitors could view the animals atop open-air buses—this zoo was in a medieval-style fortress featuring a courtyard encircling a cluster of stone-walled rooms that had been converted into cages.

           When he’d first arrived, the locals in the little town at the base of the hill had called it The Keep, their mouths twitching with amused disdain. Indeed, there was a traditional tower keep at the center of the structure, but Luigi soon learned that it was derelict and not suitable as a human or animal living space above the ground floor. Luigi had instead converted one of the cave-like cages into a modest apartment. It worked quite well, heated by a solar-powered radiator, and with a stove, and refrigerator supplied by his employer. You simply had to get used to the dim light and constant smell of animal waste.

           Each day, Luigi was tasked with opening a different cage and letting its occupant roam the courtyard while he cleaned and replenished the animal’s food and water. And in this way a young Siberian tiger, an old bear, a pair of chimps, a zebra, and two antelopes could all inhabit roughly the same space without devouring or being devoured by each other.

           Sitting down just now to put on his socks, he marveled once again at his prowess this morning. Normally, it took his aged body several minutes to lift a foot high enough to stretch a sock over it. But when he’d lifted up a foot just now he saw with amazement that he was already wearing his socks and shoes. 

           He must have done the task while absently thinking about other things. Things like his departed wife, Maria. Married for forty years, they’d known each other since childhood. She was his better self, he always liked to say. Until she wasn’t. Until the day she stood in this very room and screamed at him, “I am a prisoner here, just like these pathetic animals you’re destroying! Let me go, Luigi!”

           Luigi stood and crossed the room to the refrigerator. He’d awoken from a vivid dream of eating a roast beef sandwich. Thinking about it now made him ravenous. He pulled the door open and promptly slammed it again. A buzzing had begun in his ears—or had it been there since he awoke? Was that what kept him from hearing the normal animal sounds? He brought a hand up to rub his eyes violently and then poked at his ear. Then back to the door of the fridge. But something . . . didn’t want him to see what was in there.


Down in the town, Jack was trying to recruit his friend Frank for a noble mission—to liberate the animals living in the compound on the hill, the one that crazy zookeeper had named “Paradiso Animale.”

           “Paradise, my you-know-what,” Jack had muttered the night before, as he ruminated with his pal. “We need to see what he’s got trapped up there and set them free . . . do what’s right.” It had sounded good to Frank at the time, both of them sipping from leftover rum-filled paper cups and nibbling on stale raisin bran muffins outside the town’s only cafe.

           But this morning, something didn’t feel right. Frank peered out at the sky and then back at where Jack twitched in his sleep. Snow was falling. Wrong time of year for it, and definitely the wrong day for a rescue plan.

           “Stuff’s gettin’ deep out there. Boy, I hate snow.”

           Jack sputtered awake and muttered, “Argh, weenie. I’m going to pick that main gate’s lock. Think I’ve figured out how.”

           Within an hour they were approaching the old fortress, built on a rocky hill overlooking the town. Snow clung to the tiled roof, looking like delicious icing on a carrot cake, and reminding Frank he was hungry again.

           “Could do without this wind,” Jack muttered, stopping at the sole tree on the hill to catch his breath. Then the shrieking on the hill began and he forgot about the wind.

           It would be a lie to say Frank and Jack hadn’t rushed back down the way they came when they heard it. High and loud came the sound, a sudden piercing of the early morning darkness as snow blew horizontally past their faces.

           At the outer edge of the town, Jack, who was the faster of the two, finally slowed and circled back to wait for his buddy. Then he and Frank sought refuge from the wind in the overhang of the town constable’s office. No point in knocking at the door, as it was well known the portly constable liked to sleep in on weekends and probably wouldn’t arrive at the office for several more hours.

           “What did we even hear?” Frank asked as he furiously shook snow off his head. “A woman’s scream, or maybe a high-pitched man’s voice? More likely, not a human sound at all.”

           Jack turned on his friend and snapped, “Those animals are in peril—we should not have left!” Then he flicked powdery snow off his chest to calm himself. “Do you know where Constable Briggs lives? Maybe we can alert him.”

           Frank remembered spotting Briggs’ silver police cruiser parked in a downtown neighborhood. The snow was finally subsiding amid the first streaks of dawn when they came to the house where the cruiser sat in a driveway.

           “I don’t know about this,” Frank muttered as they approached the front door. “I mean, what if he’s trigger-happy? I . . . don’t wanna be collateral damage.” Jack nodded and was silent for a moment.

           “I’ve got an idea,” he murmured, turning back to look at the cruiser.


           Luigi was no longer hungry. Instead, he focused on his growing anxiety over the animals’ silence. Grasping his front door, he pushed it open, clambering over an enormous wedge of packed snow and stumbling into the courtyard. Then he turned and looked back at the mound beside his door. That hadn’t felt like snow as he scrambled over it. He walked back and leaned down to touch the mound. His hand felt through the melting flakes to something still, dark, and wetly furry. One of the apes, he would guess.

           Clearly one or more of the animals had gotten out. But how? The last thing he always did before retiring was to patrol the round of cages and rattle the locks. It soothed him and actually helped him fall asleep.

           His first impulse was to go check on the tiger’s cage. Of all the animals housed there, even counting the aged bear and the child-sized chimpanzees, his greatest concern was the Siberian tiger. The cat had been rescued from a traveling circus only to be placed in solitary confinement in this fortress. Previously tortured by humans, he now seemed strangely reclusive in his cage. However, a tiger is a tiger, always and forever. None of the other animals would be safe if that cat was loose. He hit the floodlamp that illuminated half the courtyard and hoped that its solar battery still had charge. It emitted a faint half-light. He walked toward the tiger’s cage and stopped. A woman stood beside the big cat in the eerie glow. Her hair hung loose and she wore a pale nightgown with a dark stain across its front.


           Maria caressed the cat as if for comfort. Then she raised her voice to a screech.

           “Why won’t you stay dead, my love? And why must you keep pieces of me here?”

           And then the screaming began.


           By noon that same day, the parking lot below “Paradiso Animale” was full of official vehicles. Hikers had called in a report of howls and screeching coming from the hill, and Constable Briggs had deduced that “Something ain’t right at that animal park.”

           Briggs had been up since 6:00 AM, when the alarm went off on his cruiser. The fact that a pair of ravens were crapping on his windshield when he opened his front door only added to the ominous feeling. Weren’t they harbingers of doom or something?

           By the time he’d driven up the hill to the front gate of the zoo, several townies were up there checking it out. When the state troopers arrived, Briggs was told to do crowd control while they investigated the scene.

           The melting snow was starting to reveal the body count. Five animals dead in their cages. One ape lay outside the zookeeper’s door. The Siberian tiger appeared to be the culprit. Not even the old bear was spared. An initial search of the grounds turned up no big cat, until they came to the door of the tower keep, unlocked but shut tight. And on the inside? Well, well.

           Jack perched on the roof alongside his pal Frank as they surveyed the activity in the courtyard. He cocked his head to the side and shook out his tail feathers as he watched some workers drag out the animals one by one and throw them in a pile.

           “My heart is breaking that we weren’t able to save a single animal,” he murmured. “But my stomach is also growling. And you know that old adage.” Down the ravens soared to the courtyard, landing on the antelope’s bloody carcass. “Waste not, want not.”

           The two men from town tasked with dragging out the animals were so engrossed in their work that they hardly noticed the scavengers.

           Townie 1: “You know what’s really stumping me is how the big cat got all those animal cages unlocked. The zookeeper had to have helped him.”

           Townie 2: “Him? Naw, I’m no forensic expert but that guy had probably died in his sleep a few days ago. Those animals are fresh kills. And somebody else had been living in the tower keep. The lock was busted and they found the big cat curled up and purring on what looked like a pile of lady things—dresses and such. Didn’t find the gal, but wasn’t that zookeeper hitched when he first got here?

           There was shouting from Luigi’s apartment and the two men dropped what they were doing to run to the entrance. A third townie met them at the door. He pushed past and spewed his breakfast into the snow.

           “Dude, you’re not going to believe what he had in that refrigerator!”

October 20, 2023 21:19

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Shirley Medhurst
17:57 Oct 28, 2023

Nice touch with the reference to the harbingers of doom, Fred & Jack


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Andrea Corwin
17:48 Oct 28, 2023

OMG this is so good! Ravens! You fooled me until mid-story, with a good twist. I loved it. (and I dislike zoos tremendously). Good job.


Show 0 replies
Tim Shuman
17:35 Oct 28, 2023

Good twist. Didn’t give too much away, Just the right amount of foreshadowing. I enjoyed it.


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