Crime Thriller

Amid the haze of exhaust-tinged fog and the mechanical hum of traffic, a cat pads across rain-slicked pavement. She ducks into an alley lined with overflowing garbage cans, picking her way around puddles. Although few people are up and about this late – a line cook smoking a cigarette after his shift; a homeless woman slumped against a bus shelter – the cat sticks to the shadows. She darts down Broad Avenue to where it intersects with Charleston Street, then banks left toward the river. Overhead, storefronts and townhouses loom, their windows mostly dark. 

Another block, and she abruptly reaches the bank of the river, swollen from yesterday’s downpour. Moonlight glints off its black, undulating surface. Tomorrow morning, ducks will dive for fish in the murky depths, and riverboats will churn upstream. Passersby will toss empty cups and crumpled food wrappers over the side of the embankment. Lovers will stand atop bridges and carve their initials into the wooden railings, the current below ferrying away their whispered vows. But tonight the river is empty, flowing strong and silent towards the harbor. It greets the cat like an old friend.

More figures materialize out of the shadows. The cat is now just one of several dozen scampering down the empty streets, following the curves of the river. Like her, most are alley-dwelling strays. Streetlights reveal flashes of sleek silver fur and matted orange tufts; sagging bellies and missing ears; swishing tails and quivering whiskers. As the city sleeps, the feline army marches downtown, past a glass forest of skyscrapers. Just before the river empties into the harbor, they come to a bare concrete lot beneath the tracks of an elevated train. They take their places beside sodden cigarette butts and patches of weeds. In the center of the lot, the old masters are waiting.


Zoe sits at the kitchen table and stares at the television, where anchors relay news of another missing child – a student at Zoe’s elementary school. This is the fourth student who has disappeared in the past month, and parents are growing anxious. Children and adults alike go missing within city limits all the time – victims of drive-bys or street fights, their bodies stuffed into garbage bags and dumped into the river – but not so often in Zoe’s neighborhood.

Her mother switches off the television. “That’s enough doom and gloom for today,” she says. “Finish your breakfast and get ready for school.” 

Zoe shovels down her scrambled eggs and brings her plate to the sink. She shrugs on her jacket and backpack and follows her mother out of the drafty fourth-floor apartment, down the stairs, and into the crisp early-morning air. The sidewalks are congested with smartly-dressed men and women rushing to work; mothers pushing baby strollers; old ladies walking their dogs and gripping mugs of coffee. Zoe pulls her jacket tighter as a forceful gust of wind sends red and yellow leaves spiraling from the branches above. Outside a bodega that serves the most deliciously greasy breakfast sandwiches, a man sitting on an overturned milk crate greets them as they pass. 

“Have a blessed day,” he says.

“You too,” Zoe calls after him.

They wait for the light to change at an intersection, standing back to avoid getting splattered with muddy water as cars whiz through puddles. One more block and they arrive at the entrance to Baker Elementary, where waves of children hug their parents goodbye and stream in through the front doors. 

“Wait right here for me at the end of the day,” Zoe’s mother tells her. “Don’t wander off. Don’t try to walk home by yourself. Don’t follow any of your friends. I’ll see you at two-thirty.”

She gives Zoe the same lecture every day, like she’s afraid Zoe will forget. Zoe rolls her eyes and wrinkles her nose as her mother bends down to give her a kiss, then hurries inside the school. 

Eleanor catches up with her in the hallway. 

“It’s so unfair,” she cries, clutching Zoe’s arm dramatically. “My parents aren’t letting me go trick-or-treating this year. They say it’s not safe to go out after dark.”

Zoe commiserates; she’s been looking forward to dressing up and trick-or-treating with Eleanor. The two of them turn into their classroom, where other third-graders swap theories about the missing children. Zoe finds herself caught up in the gossip – maybe the city is being terrorized by a serial killer, or maybe evil scientists are using kids as human subjects in malicious experiments. 

At lunch, she and Eleanor line up behind the cafeteria counter. The greasy-haired lunch lady smiles at them as she drops scoops of mashed potatoes onto their trays. They sit next to each other at one of the long plastic tables, where the speculation continues.

“It could be the witches,” says a boy with bushy black hair.

“What witches?” Eleanor says. “Witches don’t exist.”

“Yeah, they do. They lived here hundreds of years ago. Back then, this place was one big forest, and the witches used ingredients they took from the trees and wild animals to cast their spells. Then, the settlers came – like we learned about in our Colonial America unit – and burned as many witches as they could find at the stake. Some of them escaped and lived among the settlers in secret, but when they cut down the forest and built all the skyscrapers, the source of their magic was destroyed. The only way they could keep casting spells was through human sacrifice.”

A chill runs down Zoe’s spine. Eleanor scoffs, but her forearms are prickly with goosebumps. Could it be true? Is a secret coven of witches responsible for the missing children? Zoe shudders and tries to put the thought out of her head. 

That afternoon, Zoe meets her mother out front at two-thirty sharp, and doesn’t protest when she grips Zoe’s hand extra tight on the walk home.


Shortly before the upcoming elections, a new candidate for mayor has cropped up seemingly out of thin air – the young heir to a real estate development empire named Nate Fairchild. His odds of beating the incumbent, a charismatic former labor organizer who’s held office for over a decade, are long, but Fairchild is sparing no expense. Fences and building facades are plastered with posters of his tanned, handsome face staring triumphantly ahead. Energetic volunteers knock on doors and hand out flyers listing Fairchild’s campaign promises, which are certainly brazen – he’ll hire more police to crack down on gangs and drug dealers, pour millions into tearing down vacant townhouses to make room for lavish high-rises, and bring in new investors and businesses that will create hundreds of well-paying jobs. Some whisper that these policies will only exacerbate displacement and drive out the poorest residents, but others declare an outsider like Fairchild is exactly what they need. Rallies are held, campaigning ramps up, and tensions rise as election day draws nearer.

“Under Mayor Haverhill, things have grown worse over the past twelve years,” Fairchild says during a televised debate. “The economy is down. High school graduation rates are down. Crime is up. Unemployment is up. We don’t need more of the same ineffective policies – we need change. We need a revolution.”

Mayor Haverhill, the incumbent, attempts to gain back ground by pointing to a new policy on affordable housing and a job training program he created five years ago, but audiences aren’t swayed. 

“I know some of you may say I’m inexperienced,” continues Fairchild, “but would you rather have an eighty-year old has-been in charge? When our current mayor started in politics, his ideas might have been successful, but times have changed. You need a mayor who at least knows his way around an iPhone.”

At this, the audience laughs.

“In all seriousness, folks, you should elect someone who understands the way the world works today, and who can see the direction in which it’s heading. You need someone who reflects the young, forward-thinking, entrepreneurial spirit of this city. If you vote for me, I promise that I will usher in a new era.”

The crowd erupts in thunderous applause. Outside, hordes of cats bristle with anticipation.


“…Reporting to you live from the scene of the latest child disappearance. Eleanor Wu, a third-grade student at Baker Elementary, was reported missing last night by her parents. She was last seen in her home at eight forty-five p.m. Police are searching the area and interviewing witnesses. If anyone has information that could help locate the missing child, they are encouraged to contact the authorities immediately.”

A photo of Eleanor flashes across the screen – her class picture, Zoe realizes. The reporters are still talking, but Zoe can barely hear them over the pounding in her ears. Her vision goes fuzzy, and her chest tightens. The room seems to spin.

“Oh honey,” her mother folds Zoe into a tight embrace. “I’m sure they’ll find her soon. Everything will be okay, you’ll see.” 

Tears well in her eyes. Yesterday she and Eleanor had been playing freeze tag at recess, and now she was just… gone? What if Zoe never sees her again? The police still haven’t found any of the other kids. 

“I don’t want to go to school today,” Zoe says through her tears.

“That’s okay. You can stay home. I’ll make you some hot cocoa.” 

In the kitchen, Zoe’s parents speak furtively to each other. “The Wus must be beside themselves. I can’t even imagine,” says her mother.

“I’ll go over there later, see if I can be of any help,” says her father. “You stay here with Zoe.”

The two of them glance over at her. She knows what they’re thinking – at least it wasn’t her. At least Zoe is still safe. But for how much longer?

“…And in other news, a new poll shows dark horse candidate Nate Fairchild ahead by seven points,” the anchor says.


Zoe spends the day cocooned in blankets on the couch, untouched mug of cocoa growing cold on the side table. Her parents’ muted voices fade in and out. Police sirens blare outside. 

In the afternoon, her father leaves for the Wus’ place. He returns a few hours later, his face grim. Zoe can’t imagine how Mr. and Mrs. Wu must be feeling right now, not to mention Eleanor – she must be terrified, wherever she is. Zoe remembers what the boy in her class said about witches, and she pictures a woman with a hooked nose and gnarled fingers stealing into the Wus’ apartment and snatching Eleanor from her bed. She imagines the woman tying Eleanor up and cackling as she prepares the other elements of her potion – essence of toad, probably, and powdered bat’s wing – then brandishing a wand and pointing it straight at Eleanor’s heart… 

She shakes her head hard. Witches aren’t real, she reminds herself, but she can’t help from fearing the worst. She throws off her blankets and rises to her feet, pacing the living room floor. By now, the sky has grown dark and the sirens have let up. Zoe’s mother gently ushers her into bed and kisses her goodnight, but Zoe lies awake. Her nerves buzz with fear and adrenaline. She sits up and gazes out the window, her hands cupping the glass so that she can see clearly. There are no stars – too many electric lights – but the moon is high and full. A breeze rustles the branches of the linden trees lining the sidewalks.

And then she sees it, revealed by the headlights of a passing car: something moving underneath the awning of the restaurant across the street. At first, she wonders if she’s seeing things, but then it steps forward into the glow of a streetlamp – a cat, its fur the color of shadows, long tail flicking back and forth. 

Zoe has seen her fair share of stray cats all around the city, dashing behind dumpsters and chasing rats in alleyways. But something about this one holds her attention. As she watches, it settles back on its haunches and meets Zoe’s gaze. Her breath catches. She stares back, and the cat doesn’t look away.

As she stares, an odd sensation settles over her, like her skin is humming. Her arms and legs move practically of their own accord and propel her out of bed and into the living room, where she pulls on her shoes and slips quietly out of the apartment.

When she reaches the front of the restaurant, the cat is still there. Its fur gleams in the light of the streetlamp, and Zoe can see that its eyes are wide and green. She bends down, but before she can touch it, the cat darts away. She runs after it, nearly losing sight of it when it rounds the corner of the restaurant, but at the last moment it stops, waiting for her to catch up. They continue like this for several blocks – the cat stopping, waiting for Zoe, then scampering off again. 

The temperature has dropped rapidly since sunset, but Zoe doesn’t feel cold. On some level, she knows she shouldn’t be outside after dark – her parents will go mad with worry if they look inside her bedroom and find her gone – but she doesn’t care. It’s as if some unknown force has taken control of her mind, casting out all thoughts but the black cat in front of her and the pavement beneath her feet. 

Out of the corner of her eye, she senses movement. There, emerging from an alley to her left, is another cat, this one mottled brown and plump. It falls into step a few paces behind Zoe, as if ushering her forward. Her heartbeat quickens. It’s not just a coincidence – these cats are taking her somewhere. They want her to follow them.

A third cat pops up in front of the black one, and then another to Zoe’s right. Before she knows it, she is surrounded by cats of all sizes and colors. Their footfalls are virtually noiseless, but occasionally a distant purr or soft hiss cuts through the silence. They turn onto Charleston Street, coming up beside the embankment of the river. A dozen yards below, it churns hungrily. 

Zoe has lost sight of the first cat, but the others have formed a herd that sweeps her along. She lets them lead her into a neighborhood she’s never seen before. The humming beneath her skin has amped up to a tingling, and as she walks, her feet barely seem to touch the ground. She tries to focus, to pull herself back to reality – Your name is Zoe. Your best friend is missing. You need to find her – but as soon as the thoughts solidify, they are whisked away by the strange unknown force.

Suddenly, every last cat comes to a halt at once. They are at the edge of a vacant lot, one of many that dot the city, propagating weeds and collecting garbage. It is completely nondescript – except for the metal trashcan set ablaze in the center of the lot, and the circle of women that surround it.

They sway back and forth; not dancing, exactly, but almost; chanting words Zoe can’t quite make out. Their faces are upturned, eyes closed. Shadows flicker across their skin. They vary in age, race, and style of clothing – some wear elegant pantsuits and shiny leather heels; others track pants and running shoes; flared knee-length skirts and cardigans; long-sleeve dresses that trail along the ground; thin white shifts that billow in the intensifying breeze. One is wearing a brown leather dress adorned with beads, her waist-length silver hair hanging in two pin-straight braids. Her face is etched with deep, furrowed lines.

In unison, the woman lift their arms, fingers reaching towards the full moon. Their chants grow louder, their movements quicker and more frantic. Zoe’s eyes widen as she realizes she recognizes one of them – the lunch lady at her school, the one with the greasy hair. And that woman in the cream-colored pantsuit looks familiar too – she’s one of the anchors on TV, Zoe thinks, who’s been reporting on the missing children. And the one with the pixie cut and thick-rimmed glasses – that’s her mother’s friend from yoga class.

All of a sudden, the women stop. They drop their arms to their sides and stand at attention, staring into the fire. The one with the silver braids steps forward.

“Sisters of Mother Earth,” she intones. Her voice creaks and rumbles, but the words are clear. “We are gathered tonight to protect our ancestral homeland. We call on the power of the moon to defend us against those who would destroy it. Since the beginning of time, we have humbly served as stewards of this land, but now we face a threat most sinister. We call upon you, O Sacred Mother, with the Blood of the Innocent, the Words of the Faithful, and the Will of the Familiar – cast out the interloper and return our home to its primordial state.”

Wind roars in Zoe’s ears. The flames leap higher. The blood of the innocent. So it’s true, what that boy said. These women – these witches – have been kidnapping children and sacrificing them to cast some kind of protection spell. Zoe should feel horrified; should run home to her parents immediately, but she only feels… reverent. A flood of warmth rushes through her, and she knows it is the witches’ power finding her, choosing her.

The circle breaks open. In front of her, the cats move aside to clear a path, and Zoe walks forward into the fold.


Just before twilight the next day, the body of Nate Fairchild is found floating facedown in the river. Authorities rule it an accidental drowning, but Zoe, safely back in her bed, knows otherwise, as do the cats padding across the pavement below.

October 28, 2022 17:47

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