Welcome to Urban Legends: Author & Artist #SpookyShowcase. This autumn 2019, the strange and unusual is unleashed! Featuring the best authors and artists in the horror landscape, come back each day the month of October for a scare. You can find the master posting schedule here,
Expect dark stories, myths, legends, and creepy creations that will make your spine tingle. Remember, urban legends aren’t true…are they?
by Connie B. Dowell
Inspired by the vanishing lady.
The stray black cat stretched upward, her front paws lifting into the air as her fuzzy head brushed the tips of Jody’s fingers. Jody knelt and gave her a good scratching on both ears. The cat purred and circled her, rubbing her face on Jody’s arms, touching each of Jody’s feline-inspired tattoos, from the fluffy Persian on her left bicep to the flowery script “meow” on her right wrist, as though she knew what they represented. Jody pulled out her phone and snapped a few pictures.
“Have y’all named her?” Jody asked.
“No.” Maura smiled down at them from behind the reception desk. She drew a tissue from the fern-patterned tissue holder and blew her nose with a loud honk. “We didn’t want to get attached since we knew we couldn’t keep her.” Every object in the Law Offices of Fern and Berry was on theme, from the potted Japanese painted fern in the window to the ferns and berries wallpaper covering the reception area to the raspberry-scented hand sanitizer on Maura’s desk.
“Are you sure you have to let her go?” Jody asked. Maura had a wistful shine to her eyes.
Maura shook her head and honked into a tissue again. “If she would stay outside it would be all right. But she’s sneaky. We shut the doors and windows and somehow she gets in. And with my allergies and Buddy…” Maura shrugged. Buddy was Mr. Fern’s St. Bernard and the dedicated office dog. “So you’ll take her?” asked Maura.
“Of course.” Jody stood and the black cat wove herself around Jody’s legs. Jody checked her phone for the time. Nearly 4:00 already, and she had a client at Cats ‘N Tats at 4:30. “Is it okay if I come back tomorrow? I don’t have any carriers in my car right now.”
“No worries.” Maura balled up her tissue and tossed it into a blueberry-patterned wastebasket. “We’ve got a little cat food and some blankets for her to sleep on. We’ll make it work until you get back.”
“Great. I’ll see you then.” Jody left, her mind buzzing. The cat needed a name for now, even if the folks who adopted her would likely change it. All the drive back to the shop, she played with names in her head. What would be the right name for a cat found outside a law office? Brief? No. Who calls a cat Brief?
Aha! Jody grinned to herself. The perfect name. Habeas Catus.
The night had been a long one at Cats ‘N Tats and Jody woke late the next morning, so it was almost lunchtime before she was able to return. A sudden breeze blew colorful leaves onto her sweater as she opened the back of her car to retrieve a cat carrier.
“Hi, Maura,” Jody called over the tinkling of the jingle bells on the front door. “Sorry it took me all morning to get here. We’ve been real busy and–”
Her words caught in her throat. She blinked. Nope. Still there. “You redecorated pretty quick,” she said.
Maura looked up from her computer. “What do you mean?”
“Uh…” Jody set down the cat carrier and gestured toward the wall behind Maura. “What happened to the fern and berry wallpaper?”
Maura blinked. “What? We’ve always had the roses.” She pointed over her shoulder to the wall. Jody thought she saw the corners of Maura’s mouth lift slightly.
What was going on? They were a long way from April Fool’s Day. But now Jody thought about it today was Friday. Friday the 13th.
Jody laughed. “That’s a good one. You really had me for a minute.”
Again, the corners of Maura’s mouth twitched, but otherwise her face revealed nothing. “I don’t understand. Anyway, I’ll try and coax the cat out.” She took a jar of cat treats from the desk and shook it. A few moments later, a sleek, black cat darted out from beneath a chair and brushed against Maura’s legs. Maura sneezed and handed Jody the jar of treats.
Jody crouched and took a few treats from the jar. “Here, kitty, kitty.” She dropped the treats a few feet in front of her, and while the cat was absorbed in devouring them, she unlatched the carrier on the floor beside her.
“Good girl,” Jody cooed, turning back to the cat. She reached toward the cat, then stopped. The wallpaper wasn’t the only thing that had changed in the office. The cat’s nose was longer, the ears shorter, and the notch she’d noticed in the left ear had disappeared. Jody pulled out her phone and hurriedly scrolled to the photo she’d taken the day before. No doubt about it. This was not the same cat.
“Uh, Maura, where did this cat come from?”
“I told you yesterday. The cat wandered up to Mr. Fern out in the alley and wouldn’t go away.”
“No,” said Jody. She looked Maura straight in the eyes, but Maura wouldn’t meet her gaze and glanced away toward a potted fern in the corner. “This isn’t the cat from yesterday. Where did this one come from and what happened to the other one?”
“Of course this is the same cat!” Maura forced a little giggle. She still wouldn’t meet Jody‘s eyes. “What’s gotten into you?”
At that moment a loud bark and a scratch at an interior door sent the cat scurrying back under the chair. The door opened and another booming bark echoed through the reception area. Buddy the enormous St. Bernard bounded out of an office, followed by his owner Mr. Fern, a man of about sixty, as tiny as his dog was large.
“Whoa there, Buddy!” Now his voice filled the room. Mr. Fern’s voice was something of a contrast to his stature as well. Not just loud, it had an inexplicable quality that gave an aura of importance to every syllable. It was said he could command a jury’s attention in the first three words and hold them spellbound no matter what he said or how long he said it. He would frequently cross-examine witnesses at six foot three in height, bulging with muscles, and they would cower in the presence of Mr. Fern’s five-foot frame. Jody had never been in a courtroom with him and thus hadn’t seen the intimidating side of him in person. Out of court, only the enchanting voice remained.
Buddy bounded through the reception area, stopping to give Jody a big, sloppy lick on the face before rushing to the door. Mr. Fern followed quickly behind.
“Sorry about that,” he said to Jody. His hand reached for the doorknob.
“Wait!” Jody cried. She raised herself from the floor. “The cat, the one you found, did something happen to her? Because this doesn’t seem like the same cat.”
“What?” Mr. Fern shook his head. “Nothing happened to her. Nothing other than eating a whole lotta cat treats. It’s absolutely the same cat as far as I can tell.” He turned the knob. “Excuse me. I got to take Buddy for his walk.” He wasn’t meeting Jody’s eyes either. He and Buddy disappeared out the door.
Jody took a long blink to clear her head. Whatever joke they were playing, they weren’t giving up right now. She shook the jar of treats once more. “Come on, kitty, kitty.”
Jody collected the cat, snapping another picture, said her goodbye to Maura, and left. She drove home, her skin prickling with the eeriness of what had just happened. She was absolutely certain that it was not the same cat. But they were both black cats. Maybe there were actually two black cats hanging around the office and, they hadn’t noticed that they were different cats. But that still didn’t explain the change of décor. Something fishy was happening. And Jody knew just whom to talk to.
Right after she named the new cat. She couldn’t call her Habeas Catus. Maybe Sue would be fitting.
Millie pushed the book cart toward the next shelf, Abby whispering gossip in her ear as she went. Abby had other tasks to do—most of them way on the other side of the building in the children’s department. But it was slow at the moment, and Abby was never one to keep in one place with her lips not moving for very long.
“And then his mother said the cake wasn’t hers and she didn’t want to claim someone else’s cake, but the brother…”
Millie smiled and let Abby prattle on, the two of them placing the books back in their proper locations. Millie didn’t mind the chatter. It was more interesting than silence, and occasionally the things Abby said turned out to be useful.
But Abby’s cake story was interrupted when a tattooed arm reached down, the hand grabbing a book from the top shelf of the cart. “Let me,” said Jody.
Abby opened her mouth, probably to tell Jody that only library employees were supposed to shelve books. Millie put one finger to her lips. Jody’s face held a secret. Let her shelve books until she told it.
“Something pretty weird just happened to me,” Jody whispered, replacing the book on the shelf. She reached onto the cart for another. “It’s not as exciting as the problems you usually solve, Millie, the ones with murdered people, but maybe you’ll have a look?”
“Tell me more,” Millie whispered, running her hands through her messy short hair.
And Jody told her everything, seeing the original cat and original wallpaper, showing up the next day to find the wallpaper and cat changed, and Maura and Mr. Fern’s strange denial. When she finished, she showed Millie pictures of both cats. Millie examined them for a long time, switching back and forth between the two pictures. The nose was longer. The ears were different.
“You’re right,” Millie muttered. “It’s not the same cat. And the wallpaper, you can just see a little in both photos. It’s clearly not the same.”
“So you’ll look into it?” asked Jody.
“I’ll be off in an hour,” Millie replied. “Let’s go over together then.” A trickle of intrigue ran up Millie’s spine. It could be no big deal, but with a substitute black cat on Friday the 13th, you never knew.
The bell jingled as they entered the office. Maura looked up from her desk with a smile that faded as she saw who it was. Millie noted with growing disquiet that the wallpaper was indeed drastically different.
“Hi, Jody. Is there anything wrong with the cat?”
“The cat’s fine,” said Jody. “I think you know my friend Millie.”
Maura’s smile faded even more. “I’ve seen her around a bit.”
Millie gave a tentative wave.
“So what is this about?” asked Maura in an icy voice. Millie’s unease grew a little more. Maura had always been as discreet and professional as she needed to be for her job, but she had always been warm and friendly when she refused to answer Millie’s questions. For her attitude to change so sharply, something must really be wrong.
“Can I see your phone?” Millie asked Jody. She handed it over. Millie pulled up the picture from the previous day. She flashed it in Maura’s direction.
“It looks like the same cat to me.”
“Forget about the cat,” said Millie. “Look right there in the corner of the photo.” She pointed. “What do you see?”
Maura shook her head. “Nothing. Just part of the wall.”
“So it is.” Millie kept her voice calm, as she trained herself to do with interviewing suspects, strange as it was to be considering Maura a suspect of anything. “And what pattern is the wallpaper?”
Maura paled. She opened her mouth, but no sound came out.
A bark rang through the office. Buddy bounded out and hopped on Millie and Jody, licking them and nearly knocking them down. At least he was still a friend.
Mr. Fern rushed out and grabbed him by the collar. “Whoa there, boy. Let’s get outside. Time for another potty break.”
“Wait,” called Millie and she made for the door. “Have a look at this.” She showed him the picture. “Is the wallpaper different?”
Mr. Fern wouldn’t look Millie in the face. “I don’t know. Maybe it is.” He reached for the doorknob.
“What do you mean you don’t know? It is or it isn’t.”
“I’m sorry, I’ve got to take Buddy out now before he—” He stopped, and all the color drained from him. Millie followed his gaze to something in the corner, a small red mark. She walked over. No, not a red mark. A red paw print.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“That’s – that’s—” Mr. Fern stammered. “The cat must’ve gotten into some red ink this morning before Jody got her. Yeah, that’s it.”
Without another word, he wrenched the door open and left with Buddy. Before the door closed behind him, Millie saw him reach into his pocket and sprinkle something like grains of sand on the sidewalk before the door.
“Well that’s done, ladies.” Maura seemed to have gotten possession of herself at last. “It’s time for us to close for lunch, so I’m gonna have to ask you to go.”
“Lunch at 4:30?” asked Jody.
“Snack time then,” said Maura. “Anyway, we’re closing. Goodbye.” And she practically pushed Millie and Jody out the door.
“Now what?” ask Jody as they walked down the sidewalk in the late afternoon sunshine. “They are hiding something. You see it too, right?”
“Let’s go around the long way and have a peek in the dumpster,” said Millie. “If they redecorated, the old wallpaper has to be somewhere.”
Once they had circled around and gotten to the dumpster, Millie lifted a heavy metal door and sighed. “Must’ve been emptied today,” she said.
“Let me see,” said Jody. Millie moved to the side, and Jody stood on her tiptoes to look inside the dumpster.
“I guess I have to decide how curious I really am,” she said. “Do I really wanna hop in here and check all the corners?”
“No need,” said Millie. She reached up beside Jody and snatched a scrap of paper stuck to the opening. “What do we have here?” She flipped it over, examining the swirls of green, clearly a piece of a fern. “We’ll see what Maura has to say about this.” Millie folded the scrap of paper and stuck it in her pocket.
But when they went back to the office, the closed sign still hung on the door.
“Come on,” said Millie and they went down the street to the nearby bakery. There they scrubbed their hands, bought pumpkin muffins, and sat at the little table by the window. They munched the muffins until nothing but the paper baking sleeves remained, and they admired the crepe paper bats and ghosts that hung from the ceiling.
Then a small man carrying a trash bag and followed by a big dog passed the window.
Millie tugged at Jody’s sleeve. “Let’s follow him.” Out they went.
They followed Mr. Fern at a distance through the crisp autumn air, saying silent. Eventually, he turned down an empty side street and reached into his pocket. A beeping sound emanated from a red truck parallel parked along the street. He removed his hand from his pocket and something else too, a small bag which she opened. He sprinkled a few grains on the sidewalk before returning the bag to his pocket.
Millie had an idea.
“Follow my lead,” she whispered to Jody. “We’re going to meow at him then hide behind parked cars, okay?”
Millie went ahead. “Meow,” she called, then hopped behind a parked car. Jody, startled, silently followed her.
At the meow, Mr. Fern stopped and stiffened. He glanced over his shoulder for barely a millisecond, then hurried along, dropping more grains on the sidewalk.
Millie called again, “Meow.” This time Jody joined in with a smaller meow.
Mr. Fern stopped again, turned, and this time—keeping one hand firmly on Buddy—crept back in the direction of the meows, scattering grains that Millie was now certain were salt. He was soon a few feet from the car.
Millie let out a loud hiss and jumped out.
Mr. Fern leapt back. Buddy barked in surprise, then recognizing Millie, wagged his tail furiously. Jody came out from behind the car herself.
“Ladies!” Mr. Fern clutched his chest. “You gave me a fright. What are you two doing?”
Jody began to mumble an apology, but Millie cut her off.
“What’s in the bag?” she demanded.
“Oh, this? It’s just some trash.”
Millie would not give up. “What’s in the bag?”
“Now, Miss.” Mr. Fern drew himself up and adopted his courtroom voice. “As I have already said—”
Mr. Fern quailed beneath Millie’s pointing finger. He seemed to deflate. “You’re not gonna give up, so you better see.” He undid the drawstring of the trash bag and pulled out a few handfuls of removed wallpaper streaked with red.
“He’s not a bad dog,” said Mr. Fern. “I know it’s a bad thing he did, but otherwise he’s so gentle. I didn’t want anyone to lock him up or put him to…” He couldn’t finish the sentence.
Millie reached into the bag and pulled out strip after strip of stained wallpaper. Then, with a stab of horror she felt something small hard and wet. “A bone!” She dropped it.
“We came in early this morning, and I left to get breakfast. Buddy and the cat were only alone for maybe thirty minutes They always got along so well. But when I came back, I found the mess of red and the bones. We spent almost the whole morning cleaning up. I thought I got it all, but he hid a little bit in the closet.”
“Where did you get the other cat from?” asked Jody.
“Classified ad. Black cat free to a good home. And I was able to meet them that morning. Stroke of luck. I thought we could do the other cat a good turn and you would never be the wiser.” Mr. Fern’s face drooped into misery.
Millie turned a piece of the stained paper over in her hands. She couldn’t believe it. Buddy was such a gentle dog. No, she really couldn’t believe it. She held a strip of paper up to her nose. “Mr. Fern, your old wallpaper wasn’t scratch and sniff by any chance, was it?”
Mr. Fern frowned. “Of course not. What do you mean?”
“Smell this.” She held out that strip of paper. “Raspberries. Jelly, I bet.”
Mr. Fern and Jody sniffed the paper in turn.
“The bakery is right there,” muttered Jody. “Maura said the cat was always getting in and out. What if the cat brought something back?”
“And the bones?” asked Mr. Fern.
“A chicken, maybe?” said Millie, hope rising in her chest. “There’s a butcher shop, restaurants, all close by.”
“So the cat may still be alive!” Mr. Fern’s once droopy face now lit up.
Millie smiled. “There’s one way to find out.”
Mr. Fern unlocked the door with shaking hands and all four of them, three humans and one dog, raced to the jar of cat treats. There was no sign of either Maura or Ms. Berry present. Jody got to the treats first and shook the can with all her might.
With a thud, a black, furry something with a corndog in its mouth landed at their feet, having leapt apparently from the top of a tall bookshelf.
“Habeas!” Jody cried. Mr. Fern gave her a questioning look. “Habeas Catus,” Jody answered with a sheepish smile. “That’s what I named her.”
Habeas trotted over to Buddy and deposited the corndog in front of him. Buddy responded by giving her a sloppy lick to the face.
“They really seem like best friends,” said Millie. Jody nodded.
“That they do,” said Mr. Fern. “Say, since it turns out Buddy didn’t eat her, what would you think of Habeas staying with me. Not here at the office with Maura’s allergies. At home, where she could play with Buddy every night and steal things from my kitchen instead of neighboring businesses.”
“That sounds like a great idea,” Jody agreed.
Mr. Fern crouched down and scratched Habeas Catus on the head. “Just wait until I tell the others. They will be so relieved. You know, when I saw that new red paw print on the floor this afternoon, I really thought it might be a gh—gho—”
He straightened up. “I know exactly when I can give you to thank you. It’ll be especially useful to you, Millie, with you always coming across those murder cases. I’ll be right back.”
Mr. Fern rushed into his office and returned with two handfuls of tiny, pocket-sized, plastic bags of salt, each marked with the words: For the Repelling of Evil Spirits.
And being polite, they had to take them.
A Note From the Author:
The vanishing lady story is an urban legend with a much less happy ending than the tale presented here. A woman and her mother travel to a city and stay in a hotel. The woman goes out for a time, leaving her mother alone, and when she returns to the hotel, she finds her room has been completely redecorated and her mother is nowhere to be found. When she inquires at the front desk, hotel employees insist that her mother never arrived at the hotel and she checked in alone.
Only later does the woman discover that her mother died from a plague and the hotel, fearful of bad press, decided to sweep the whole thing under the rug. It is a tale that has been told at many a dinner party and printed in many a newspaper, sometimes taking place in Paris during the World’s Fair, sometimes at other times and places. The story even inspired an Alfred Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes.
About the Author
Connie B. Dowell is the host of the Book Echoes podcast and an author of nonfiction for writers, young adult mysteries and heist fiction, and the forthcoming Millie Monroe Mysteries, a cozy mystery series, and her first foray into fiction for an adult audience. To hear more about Millie, Jody, and the rest visit http://conniebdowell.com/milliemonroe