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Sean Patrick Traver

Graves' End

Prologue

The only cat Tomas Delgado could find, before his old ride died out from under him, was a young tom. A black one this time, barely weaned. Weak. Not long for this world, most likely.

Still, it was all that was available on this rainswept night in Valley Village, early in the Year 2000.

The Year 2000,’ Tom mused. It was hard not to think of it in capitals and quotes. He’d never imagined that he might see the calendar roll over to that science fiction date for himself, not in all the decades of his unnaturally-prolonged existence. It was the symbolic start of The Future, and had been the focus of anticipation and dread across all the worlds in almost equal measure.

The former necromancer could likewise never have guessed that this zero-year sandwiched between two colliding centuries was also apt to be his last.

Some nights he might’ve found a dozen cats or more congregated behind the Ralphs supermarket at the intersection of Magnolia and Coldwater Canyon, but this evening the inclement weather had driven them all away. The housecats had retreated to their homes and the ferals to whatever dry hideaways they were able to find.

Tom stood up in his scrawny new body and stretched hugely, testing it out. The kitten had sheltered under a lean-to accidentally erected when a stockboy propped a number of wooden shipping pallets outside the market’s rear delivery entrance, so its fur was relatively dry.

The stomach was empty and knotted with cramps, though, and the joints ached in the cold. The musculature had had neither the time nor the nutrition required to develop well.

This kitten might do for a few hours, old Tom thought, but if he couldn’t find something with better prospects for survival soon, he was finished.

He couldn’t believe there wasn’t another, stronger cat somewhere within the range of his perceptions. It was his own fault, really. He’d stayed with his last form too long, past the point of its realistic hope for recovery. But dammit, he’d enjoyed his fourteen years spent playing the ragged neighborhood scrapper called One-Eyed Jack by the locals who left food out for him on their back stoops. For him, or for pets of their own, all of whom had learned to leave such offerings alone until Tom/Jack had eaten his fill.

It had been a simple life, rough and close to the bone, but a good and free one for all that, and Tom had hoped to prolong it for one more summer, if he could. He’d hoped for so long that he let himself get caught out unawares, like a movie vampire too stupid to buy a watch or an almanac, one who finally gets crisped by an unanticipated sunrise as the contrived culmination of a film’s last act.

Tom had loved films since their invention, and he’d continued to watch them over the decades. Even in catform he’d always had access to television in living rooms or store windows and movies at the drive-in theater that used to be up on Roscoe Boulevard, so he really should’ve known better than to make such a classic blunder by now. But hope had made him stupid, and he’d stayed with old Jack until the frail feline body lacked the strength for him to send his mind out very far.

This sickly black kitten, this unfortunate runt that was all he could reach, wasn’t doing a hell of a lot to boost his signal, either.

Tom was tired, but he figured that if he went to sleep now his odds of waking up dead in the second chamber of the Temple of Mictlantecuhtli were pretty damn high. And, even though he was ninety years late, he knew that el Rey de Los Muertos would still be waiting at the door to greet him.

And yet… he was so weary that he didn’t know if he cared anymore. He couldn’t really keep this cathopping business up forever, could he? At some point he’d have to face the King.

The Great and Powerful Mictlantecuhtli’s wishes might be deferred, but never denied. The strange new form his temple had assumed in the modern-day world was proof enough of that.

Old Tom had spent too many decades avoiding that odd building in Hollywood to want to curl up and die quite yet, however. The Silent Tower, people had called it for a while, though Tom had never known the reason why. He’d heard the place was truly quiet these days, perhaps dormant, and had been that way since at least the early 1950s. The apparent stillness could well have been an illusion, however, if not a trap, and Tom had little desire to challenge it. He’d cheated King Death at his own game long ago, and Mictlantecuhtli’s ire over that insult was not apt to have lessened with the passing of the years. Time meant very little to him.

Maybe if he could get some food into this new catbody, Tom thought, that might be enough to keep it going till he could find himself a sturdier replacement.

There was also a dumpster behind the supermarket, one piled so high with soggy boxes and bags of crap that its lid sat ajar by a good four inches.

It was a pretty slight gap; but then, he was a pretty slight cat.

Tom laddered up the outside of his shipping pallet lean-to and leapt onto the closed half of the dumpster’s plastic lid. It was slippery and his legs were shaky-he almost slid right off the side. But his paws found purchase just in time and then he’d made it; he was up there. Soaked to the skin already, with his small heart rabbitting along… but one step closer to nourishment, of some sort.

The market boasted a new service deli, serving soups and sandwiches and chicken and coldcuts, and Tom could smell the lukewarm remainders of several people’s comingled dinners down there in the trashbin’s shadows.

He shoved his small head under the lid at the gap’s widest point, then weaseled the rest of his body through.

It was actually not so bad in here, Tom thought as he picked his way down into the tight crevasses between the dumpster’s contents. The bin was full of smells that would appall a human being, but didn’t draw the same negative value judgments from a feline palate. Besides, it was relatively dry, and dark, and private. The drumming of the rain on the plastic lid was a cozy, comforting sound.

Tom felt like just another shadow, in here.

He found a three-quarters-eaten breast of fried chicken at the bottom of a trashbag and clawed open the thin plastic to get at it. Some satiated human had left good white meat on the bones. Only a bite or two, but it might be enough to keep a small cat alive, for a little while, if he could manage to digest it.

Tom was making the experiment in small bites when the plastic lid overhead swung up and away, gonging a second later against the back of the metal bin.

He jumped and fled, bounding out of the dumpster on some last reserve of strength and eliciting a brief, cutoff shriek from the young woman who’d torn the roof off his sanctuary when he darted past her and raced away, across the wet blacktop.

Tom scrabbled up into the ivy that topped the painted concrete retaining wall separating the market’s parking lot from the houses and apartment buildings that filled out the rest of the city block.

Figuring he’d reached a minimum safe distance, Tom turned back to see what sort of intruder had just deprived him of a last meal.

It wasn’t really a woman at all, he saw, but more of a girl. Maybe fourteen or fifteen years old. On the cusp. She was looking right up at him, having tracked his brief flight across the lot. Tom glared back at her with his new kitten’s baleful green eyes.

“I’m sorry, little cat,” she said, standing in the rain like it wasn’t even there. “I didn’t mean to scare you. Come back down, if you want to. We can share.”

Tom knew she had no way of knowing that he understood, but he saw that she was a tenderhearted little thing, alone and afraid and out of her element, and he was moved by her offer of generosity. He didn’t take her up on it (his legs felt too much like old, loose rubber bands to try climbing down again), but he lingered in the plant cover at the top of the wall, waiting to see what she’d do next.

For the moment, he was more interested in her than he was in his own imminent demise.

The girl waited for more than a minute, cooing to Tom and trying to coax him back down. She was cute, with

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