Aaron Steinmetz

...be very still...the bird's angry...and I think he can see us.

Cocoa Tales: Episode Eighteen

"Were you aware," Floyd said, seated in the chair across from Harold’s desk, "when you took Cocoa Tael in, she was the Redding Bomber?"

Harold shook his head. "It wasn’t until this morning when she targeted the high school again. I realized she was the bomber the whole time."

Pacing around the office, Jessica rubbed her chin with one hand, her elbow in her other hand. "Feeling conflicted emotions," she muttered, "on the one hand, he gave succor to the enemy, on the other: he could be the reason we haven’t lost a building in six months."

"I prefer to look at it that way too," Harold stated meekly.

"Look at it what way?" Jessica asked.

Floyd leaned forward. "Do you have any idea where she might be right now?"

Tapping the desk nervously, Harold shook his head. He didn’t make eye contact with Floyd as he did so.

Glancing at each other, Floyd and Jessica both knew he was holding back, but neither of them needed to give voice to that fact. The both knew it without having to say it out loud.

"He’s holding back," Jessica muttered. "Perhaps Sodium Pentothal would–"

"There is one other thing," Harold said quickly.

Grumbling, Jessica muttered, "I’ll never get to use my Sodium Pentothal."

Harold turned from Jessica to Floyd with a confused look on his face. Floyd waved it away and said, "What’ve you got?"

"Before she left," Harold said with a sigh, "she took something I hid from her. It was a collar for another cat, a deceased cat named Nibbles."

"Nibbles?" Floyd said. "Never heard of him."

"He was a Felidus initiate I caught when I was still working for FRAG."

Floyd turned to Jessica who said, "Feline Rehabilitation Agency. They capture rogue cats for reprogramming and reentry into normal society."

Pointing at Jessica, Harold said, "You’re half right. They capture and reprogram, but they don’t get released into normal society. I left the agency after Nibbles learned something."

Pulling the other chair across the office next to Floyd, Jessica sat next to him.

"FRAG and the Felidus are a singular unit, they are one in the same," Harold said quietly. He was reasonably sure they weren’t listening to him, but not completely confident. "I believe in what FRAG claims to do, so I left, snuck Nibbles out and continued working with Nibbles in an effort to expose the connections between FRAG and the Felidus."

"What happened?" Floyd asked.

A crack in Harold’s voice betrayed his feelings on the matter: "They got Nibbles. He was dying, he told me to take his collar and run. And now Cocoa Tael has the collar."

"What’s so special about a cat collar?" Jessica asked.

"I don’t know," Harold said, shaking his head. "It was important to Nibbles, so it was important to me. But what matters right now is why it’s important to Cocoa Tael." Harold took a deep breath. "I’ve heard stories of dark magic within the Feline Underground, and they almost always involve the hair of a dead cat."

Leaning forward, Floyd grabbed the phone on Harold’s desk. "Dial nine?" he asked and Harold nodded.

Jessica watched as Floyd punched the numbers quickly. "Who are you calling?"

"Faber," Floyd replied. "Cocoa saw us. If she’s after anyone it’ll be either Faber or I."

The phone rang once and was quickly picked up. Floyd heard a hoarse voice say, "Who’s calling Drunk Faber!?"

With a laugh, Floyd shook his head. "Buddy, thought you might be dead."

"I was," Faber replied, "then I was alive and my nephew was gone so had a drink or few."

"I know," Floyd said, shaking his head. "Look, Cocoa Tael might be targeting you so try to sober up as best you can."

"You’re not the boss of Drunk Faber!"

"All right, all right," Floyd said, "we’re coming over. Mix a pot of coffee, if Drunk Faber can manage that."

Slapping the phone against the base, Floyd rubbed his temples.

"Drunk Faber?" Jessica asked.

"Whenever something goes wrong," Floyd said, "Faber goes home and drinks. I don’t like it, but there it is." Floyd turned to Harold and said, "Go to ground. Cocoa may return and you may not be able to control her again."

Harold nodded, but his eyes wandered to some vague corner of the room, a wandering that should have told Floyd something very important: Harold had no intention of going to ground.

Distracted by his drunken partner in danger, Floyd did not notice. He just held the door open for Jessica as they left the office.

Driving across town, Floyd asked Jessica, "Where have you been the last six months?"

"Where haven’t I been," Jessica muttered. Then she said, "All over. It was something The Sandman said to me. He said he wasn’t the only one who called himself ‘Sandman.’"

Floyd nodded, wondering if he was supposed to hear this that time.

"I started investigating reports of The Sandman, started traveling around looking for various clues and it became painfully clear: there have been at least three different Sandmans...Sandmen? Three different men referring to themselves as ‘Sandman’ at work simultaneously."

She pounded the dash of Smokey; the glove box began rattling its disapproval and Floyd silently hoped they wouldn’t lose their tailpipe. Again.

"I don’t even know if this Sandman is even the one I want!"

"You think he’s still here?"

"I’m sure of it," she replied. "Because, even if I can’t be sure he’s the Sandman who was responsible for the Budapest incident, he is most certainly trying to kill Montgomery Gerald. We have to stop that. How safe is he in the jail?"

Chortling briefly, Floyd said, "He has his own wing, if you can believe it. Cell block ‘S’. No one’s getting in there."

Jessica nodded. "Probably why he didn’t put up much of a fight when you guys arrested him. How far are we from Faber’s place?"

"Couple more minutes."

The stillness in Faber’s home rested in the air like sunlit dust drifting through the living room. Faber lay face down on the floor, not moving, not even breathing.

For a few seconds, anyway. A rasping gasp broke the silence of the room and, in his sleepy, drunken haze, Faber wiped a bit of drool off the side of his face. He rolled over to his back, stretching his torso, his arms sticking up in the air as they rested on their elbows.

The front door opened slowly, and Floyd entered with his gun drawn. He quietly stepped in and gave Jessica room to enter behind him, a gun in her own hand as well.

Floyd stepped into the entryway, stepped down to the living room and saw Faber passed out on his back, snoring softly.

He motioned for Jessica to search the upstairs, but he holstered his gun even as he did so. The place was empty. If Cocoa Tael had been here, she had come and gone and left Faber alive for some reason.

Not likely. Odds were, Floyd concluded silently, Cocoa hadn’t been there. But she would be.

He tapped Faber on the shoulder, then fell backward on his rump as Faber lurched, spun and flipped over, landing on all fours as he looked around the room quickly.

"Faber?" Floyd asked.

Blinking a few times, Faber cleared his throat and said, "Why am I on all fours?"

Finding his footing, Floyd muttered, "This is why you don’t punch the Storyteller."

"The place is clear," Jessica said as she descended the stairs. "Horrifying, but clear. Hello again, Detective Faber."

"Mm," Faber said with a sly smile. "Don’t you look lovely with your red hair." He crossed the room, stood right next to Jessica and began sniffing her hair.

Floyd stared at him, aghast. "Faber, what are you doing!?"

Jessica raised a finger silencing Floyd. "Faber," Jessica Holiday said slowly, patiently as Faber sniffed at her neck, "what are you smelling right now?"

"I don’t know," Faber replied, dizzy with ecstasy, "but I really want to lick your hair for some reason."

Turning her attention to Floyd, Jessica said, "Cocoa’s been here."

She shoved Faber away from him just before he could stick his tongue in her hair. He stumbled backward down the top stair, shook his head quickly and said, "Sorry, sorry. I don’t know why I did that."

Jessica crossed the room and, as she passed him, said to Floyd quietly, "Keep an eye on him."

Faber was sniffing the room noisily. "Faber," Floyd said, "you feeling okay, buddy?"

"This place smells like catnip," Faber replied.

"The collar," Jessica said, poking around Faber’s recliner, "the one that belonged to Nibbles. Cocoa did this to him."

"Did what to him?"

"This might not necessarily be a bad thing," she muttered, "once he completes the transformation."

Floyd whirls around. "What transformation!?"

"I never said anything about a transformation," Jessica said.

"Look, Holiday, stop messing around with me, okay? I’m not telepathic, neither is Faber. You talk to yourself. That’s why we can hear your thoughts. You know what’s happening to Faber, tell me!"

Staring at Floyd, she muttered, "He thinks I talk to myself. His telepathy is so pronounced he actually hears it in his ears."

"Dammit, Holiday," Floyd exclaimed, but a shriek from Faber interrupted him. "Faber, buddy, what’s happening to you!?"

Faber collapsed into an end table flipping a lamp into the air. It shattered against the wall raining glass down into the carpet. Face down on the floor again, Faber groaned, pressed one palm on the floor, then another.

He then lifted his back legs and attempted to walk on all fours, stumbling as he did so.

"Faber, you all right?" Floyd asked nervously.

Faber responded with a British accent: "Who is Faber? And why is it so bloody difficult to walk right now?"

Jessica turned to Faber and said, "You must be Nibbles."

"You’re damn well right I am," he said as he awkwardly lifted himself on his legs. "Am I in a human body?"

Floyd turned to Jessica and said, "What is going on, Holiday?"

"Feline magic," Jessica whispered to Floyd. "Cocoa resurrected her friend in Faber, probably to help her acquire her first kill."

"In Faber!?"

"Listen to me, this is a good thing," Jessica continued, "she doesn’t know Nibbles was turned. She’ll return for him, and we’ll be waiting."

"Are you sure Nibbles is rehabilitated?"

Clapping Faber’s hands together, Nibbles said, "All right wankers, let’s go kill the President."

With a grimace, Jessica replied, "Not completely."