« back

“Keeping Appearances” or: the destroyer takes a confession

Diamond and Lacy O'Malley are principle characters in a much larger work titled Darkatana: A Black Tale that is still in preparation. The author encourages them to come out and play in other contexts,  hence the current short story. Please enjoy. —c@,  July 15, 2012


“Until the judge decides what to do with you, you'll be staying here,” the policewoman said.

She was leading into a jail cell an attractive dark-haired woman dressed for business in a tweed skirt and white blouse, and had just opened the door for her.

“Are you serious?” the woman pleaded. “It looks horrible!

It was at least spartan. Behind an open iron facing and door made of rounded bars the walls, ceiling and floor were painted a uniform gray. There were parallel stacks of iron bunks arrayed two high along opposite walls, and at the back was a free-standing stainless steel commode and matching sink, the latter just large enough to wash ones hands. There were no windows, the only light came from a single small recessed fixture in the ceiling.

There were no other cells in that wing at all, the rest of the hall was lined with other kinds of rooms of no obvious purpose with solid doors having small rectangular windows.

The policewoman removed the cuffs from her prisoner's wrists and with a rough shove to her back pushed her into the cell. The prisoner stumbled slightly on her high heels, caught herself, and spun around in a hot fury.

Do not touch me!” she shouted. “I am the Veronica Chessley and I will have your head on a plate if you lay a hand on me again!”

“Yeah sure,” the officer said as she pulled the barred door closed. “That does remind me though, I'll be by later to take your request for dinner.”

“Ha!” the other spat, leaping forward then to grab the bars in her fists. “I won't be here long enough to eat whatever slop you are passing off as food!”

“Tell it to the judge, Miss-flight-risk-to-Brazil,” the officer sneered in return. “Oh and mind you don't disturb the kitty. She refused breakfast again and might be tending towards irritable about now.”

Veronica turned sharply and looked around at the bunks.

A female figure laying in a lower bunk on the left, hard up against the wall with her back turned to the cell interior, stirred slightly but otherwise did not move to rise nor acknowledge their attention in the least.

Veronica seemed suddenly less confrontational. “Who is she?” she asked, pointing to the bunk. “And why is she in jail?”

The policewoman locked the cell with a click, and the prisoner jumped. “That one is less a who and more a what. As for why, it's owner is required to store it here anytime she leaves town. Isn't that right, Tatiana?

She had raised her voice at the end in an obvious attempt to gain the attention of the one laying in the bunk.

Tatiana made no move but let out a course, throaty growl exactly as if she were a jungle cat.

“Ah the poor pussy,” the policewoman said with dripping condescension. “Did master leave it with the nasty old police lady again? Maybe master doesn't love pussy any more. Poor thing. Poor, abused, abandoned little thing.”

The words must have stung her because Tatiana exploded from her bunk, rolling out to land on all fours in the middle of the cell. Ignoring Veronica she leaped snarling at the bars, a jaw full of sharp fangs flashing white. The police woman jeered and took one step back as a clawed hand at the end of a long, muscled arm tore the air an inch from her face.

For a female she was huge, as tall as a large man and muscled like a body builder. Her booted feet planted wide apart she looked both able and ready to rip the cell bars from their mountings. Massive legs strained with effort as she pushed against the bars in her fury to reach her tormentor, while behind her a striped tail long and thick as an arm flailed and coiled angrily, and her knife-like teeth snapped at the bars.

The image was of something like a cross between a woman and a panther. The impression was reinforced by her having a generous amount of short black and copper fur in the front and back and down the inside of her legs. Someone had made a token effort to provide her some attire; she wore a very short black skirt and an equally brief black leather vest that didn't button in the front but fell open as she moved to reveal three pairs of small breasts.

In no way did her scant clothing leave any doubt that Tatiana was anything less than a powerful predator.

“Oh I'm so scared!” the officer purred. Then with more venom than fear she added, “That sort of display will get you locked up in the box again. You remember the box don't you, Tatiana?”

Tatiana retreated from the bars a step still snarling and growling savagely.

“I can see you do pussy,” the officer continued, approaching the cell from her side as the creature retreated slowly. “You spent a week in the box last time. Wasn't that a fun time we had? You want to stay in the box until master comes back? Would you like that pussy?

Tatiana gave a final snarl before she slowly knelt down on the floor to sit there panting with her legs under her. Her tail wrapped around her side and curled to lay across her thighs, twitching randomly.

Good pussy,” the officer purred again. “Now don't go causing any trouble while you have a cell mate or it's the box for sure. Jail cells are for humans, not things. You don't even get to room at the zoo anymore, since you ate that keeper. That was being a bad kitty. Very bad.”

During this exchange Veronica had backed herself against a far wall, consumed with terror. Her hands were groping around her as if she were trying to find a way to reach a place even more distant.

Tatiana, clearly defeated, turned and looked over at Veronica, snarled softly, then crawled back into her bunk and into the same fetal position she'd been in before, facing the wall. Only her tail seemed agitated, constantly curling and uncurling behind her legs.

The woman officer snorted in disgust and said, “I'll be back in a bit. Try to get along.”

Then she turned and sauntered off, turning a corner at the other end of the hall and out of sight.

Veronica tried breathing again, and wiped her brow with the fingers of one hand.

“I hate it here,” Tatiana said as she rolled over and sat up on the edge of the bunk. “Master isn't so bad, but most other people I could do without.” She was looking at Veronica, all her fury apparently discharged for the moment. “So why are you in here?” she asked.

Veronica steeled herself and ventured back into the center of the room. She ignored Tatiana and the question and instead stood at the bars of their cell, her slim fingers wrapped around them.

God — what now,” she whispered.

She may have felt a presence at her back for she turned her head to find the hulking, furred female hovering over her silently, sniffing her hair. Veronica jumped sideways with a strangled cry, her hands thrown up protectively.

“I'm a tiger,” Tatiana said. “That's what brought me here. Any time master leaves town I have to stay in this wretched place. I knew they kept humans here too but I've never shared a cage with one so I don't know why they do. Tell me why are you here.”

Veronica blinked up at the other, and Tatiana looked back at her.

“You have — eyes like a tiger,” Veronica said. “I have a painting at home. Of a tiger. With eyes —  like yours.”

Tatiana waited silently. Veronica turned away, composed herself, and began. “They think I stole things from peoples' homes. It's ridiculous. I'm a Realtor, a highly paid professional. I don't need to steal things from clients. Really, how pathetic.”

“What is that — stealing,” Tatiana asked.

Veronica turned around, surprised. “What is stealing? You really have no idea?”

“I don't understand much of the human world,” Tatiana said. “Master never mentioned that.”

Veronica turned away, shrugged and said, “Well stealing is taking things. Taking something for your own use that already belongs to someone else. There are laws against it. But everyone does it anyway.”

Tatiana returned to her bunk, sitting down on the edge. “So they think you stealed something. Do they put people in boxes for that?” she asked.

Veronica smiled and shrugged as if it were a silly question. “Of course not. It would be unseemly cruel to —”

She stopped and turned around, finding Tatiana sitting on the side of the bunk hugging a pillow and looking down at the floor of the cell.

“— to put anyone in a box,” Veronica finished.

Tatiana hugged the pillow closer and closed her eyes.

“It doesn't matter,” the tigress said softly. “I can't do anything about it. Master said they could, so they can, and usually they do.” Then she looked up again and asked, “I know I'm not right. They say that and I know it myself. But do I look like that other one? Other than my eyes?”

Veronica looked uncertain. “Which other one?”

“The other tiger,” Tatiana clarified. “In the picture. I've never seen another tiger, I don't know what they look like. I think I'm not right.”

Veronica shook her head. “You don't look much like the one in the picture. Not really. You look more like a person actually.”

Tatiana was watching her over the edge of the pillow, only the upper part of her face visible.

Veronica worked her hands together nervously. “Did you really — eat — a zookeeper?” she finally asked while taking a seat at the edge of the other bunk.

The tigress tossed the pillow behind her into the bed sheets. “Not as such. But I chewed him up really good.”  She lowered herself to the floor on her hands and knees and crossed the cell floor toward where Veronica sat, saying, “He probably thought I was going to eat him alive. Given a little more time chewing on him and I might have managed it.” Veronica watched her approach with apprehension and slid herself further down the bunk.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I've eaten lots of people,” the other continued despite the question. Tatiana stopped to sit on the floor with her legs pulled under herself. “Master thinks she feeds me enough, but she doesn't. I don't complain though because I was told once that it's a lot of trouble if I eat too much. Whatever that means. So any time I can escape I eat someone before they catch me. That's how I manage to stay alive in your stupid world.”

Her eyes narrowed as she considered Veronica appraisingly, who under that gaze then pulled herself further into the bunk.

“They'll bring dinner soon,” Veronica said, somewhat unsteadily.

The tiger tilted her head to one side, looking as if this puzzled her.

“Will they?” she said softly, thinking aloud. “Maybe I thought so once. But now I'm too hungry to think at all. Do you ever get like that? Veronica? Too hungry to think clearly?”

“Never,” Veronica answered, taking that opportunity to leap from the bunk and sprint for the front of the cell. Tatiana though sitting on the floor was far faster and wasn't wearing high heels besides, and easily rose to cut the other off. Veronica pulled up short, freezing in place, just as the animal grabbed a hand full of the back of her sweater. “Don't touch me!” she hissed in anger. Tatiana did release her, and Veronica almost turned around.

But a soft growl, low and moist, made her freeze in mid-turn.

Run again,” Tatiana said. "I like it."

Moving just her eyes Veronica looked around herself, at the bars, and then let her gaze rise to the hall beyond.

“The box, Tatiana,” she said without turning, her voice weakening with terror. “Don't forget the box.”

“I don't care,” the tigress said from somewhere behind her. “I can't think right now. They won't feed me. They never feed me and then they put me in a box and I'll start to hurt all over and they won't care and the bad dreams will come like before and then I won't —” But whatever it was she would not, she didn't say. Instead Tatiana leaped back into her bunk and threw herself against the far wall.

Veronica turned slightly and looked over her shoulder to see where the animal had gone.

“I have to get out of here,” she whispered, sounding slightly unhinged. “I cannot stay here. I have to get out.”

The reason for Tatiana's sudden retreat became obvious as the police woman approached the cell, a clipboard in hand. “Okay ladies,” she began briskly. “Time to take your meal requests. Let's see we have – mac and cheese, braised tofu on noodles, or salad. What is your pleasure.”

This last she addressed to Veronica, standing petrified just beyond the bars.

Veronica could hardly muster a sound. “Get me out of here,” she finally said. “Put me somewhere else, anywhere at all. I'll take my chances with the men. Or the box, put me in the box. I don't care. This woman is crazy!”

The policewoman listened to all this carefully, then looked down at her clipboard and said, “I'll put you down for a salad.”

She made a check mark on a piece of paper clipped to the board then raised her voice and said, “Okay sleepy head, you heard the menu what would you like?”

Flesh!” Tatiana shouted, flinging herself across the bed to hang over the edge. “Raw human flesh!” In her agitated excitement she thrust herself upwards and immediately hit her head with a crack on the lower rail of the upper bunk. She cried out in pain and fell back to lay on the bunk holding the top of her head.

And a salad,” the officer said dryly, making the same notation she had a moment earlier.

Tatiana on hearing this moaned and rolled back over to face the wall, still holding the top of her head.

“I'm gonna starve to death,” she whimpered.

The officer gave Veronica a quick glance before she made a show of turning to leave.

Veronica surged for the bars, and reaching through them grabbed the officer by the sleeve. “Don't leave me in here with this creature!” she cried. “She's insane! She just confessed everything to me! She eats people! Lots of people!

The officer prised the woman's hand off her uniform and said, “Don't know what gave you that idea. Regardless you are stuck with her. She's not fit to run around lose and the judge won't be seeing you again until day after tomorrow.”

Veronica had to watch the officer leave back down the hall. Then she turned in place and put her back against the bars, her hands clinging to them in desperation.

“I can't stay here,” she whimpered in mounting terror.

Tatiana rolled over in the bunk, swung her long legs out, and stood up in the cell.

“So you think you'd be better off in the box than here, is that it?” she asked, her voice low and menacing.

“I can't stay here,” Veronica repeated, her voice shaking. “I can't.”

“I have an idea,” Tatiana continued. “Let's go into the box together.

“This is a nightmare,” Veronica said, shaking her head and pressing herself into the bars. “This cannot be happening.”

“They can't do anything to me,” the tigress continued pleasantly. “Master has connections, that's how she is able to keep me at all. They'll put me in the box eventually regardless, that's the game they play because it makes them feel like they have some kind of power over me. But at least I won't be half starved this time when they do it.”

She was standing right in front of Veronica, towering over the other woman like a tree, an evil grin full of knives on her face, and a predatory gleam in her amber eyes.

“There isn't anywhere else for you to go,” a voice said from somewhere down the hall. “In a couple of days you can see the judge and maybe he'll decide different.”

"A couple of days,” Veronica repeated hopelessly, her eyes rivited to the tiger's. “I won't survive the night."

“If I said her bark is worse than her bite,” the voice continued from a little closer, “would you believe me?”

“No!” Veronica barked in reply, sounding equal parts amused and annoyed.

“Prudent,” the voice said. “I can assure you, having seen it, that her bite is absolutely lethal.”

Tatiana hadn't move a muscle during this exchange, but continued to hover over Veronica, looming like a Medieval siege tower made of hunger and murder.

You need a confession,” Veronica observed, her eyes going round. “You'll let me out to confess.”

“Confess to what?” the voice asked.

“Everything. I'll confess to everything. But not here. Let me out. Get me away from here.”

“The judge won't go easy on you if this is just more of your tactics.”

“No more tactics,” Veronica said, shaking her head sharply and staring up into the face of the tiger. “I stole everything just as they said I did.”

“Where is it being kept? They've searched your home.”

Veronica smiled despite her terror. “I have another house you don't know about, under an assumed name. I was decorating it with pretty things. I stole everything that's in it. Everything there is stolen. Much more than you can possibly know about.”

She took a step back and then where there should have been bars, there was the policewoman. Veronica turned quickly with a gasp and the officer took her by the arm saying, “Perhaps you should come with me.”

And she lead the stricken, frightened woman out of the cell.

From a room two doors down the hall a man and woman in casual business attire and wearing badges on their belts stepped into the hall. The man had perched atop his head a pair of headphones. The woman standing with him elbowed him sharply and he whipped them off his head and tossed them back into the room they had just exited.

“She's all yours,” the policewoman said, handing Veronica over.

They each took her by an arm and together lead her down the hall. Veronica was looking between them in apparent bewilderment when she spun part way around to look behind herself in fear.

But there was no pursuit. Instead of there being a half-crazed jungle creature driven mad with hunger and torment, the mighty Tatiana was standing calmly in the opening of the jail cell watching Veronica go, arms crossed, the maniacal grin replaced with a thoughtful look.

Veronica and the two investigators passed around the corner in the hall and were gone.

The policewoman was Lacy O'Malley. She turned to the tigress and said, “That was nicely played.”

The other shrugged. “It wasn't all an act. You know how I can be.”

“I do know. And I remember too that day I found you standing in an alley, thin as a ghost and nearly as transparent, hovering over those two gangsters you had just killed and looking every kind of hungry.”

The tigress looked down at her feet. “Yeah. That was one of the bad days.”

“I didn't know then what I know now,” Lacy continued. “Coming between a huntress and her kill, I suppose I'm lucky to be alive.” She held up a hand to intercept any reply and stepped into the cell. Reaching under the bottom bunk where Veronica had earlier sat she felt around a little before coming back with a small, rectangular device. She held it up and said, “That's our show for tonight folks, we're here every Tuesday and Thursday. Don't forget to tip the waitress.” She thumbed a small switch on the box and tossed it onto the bunk.

“The less they actually know about how you can be, the better,” Lacy said with a kind smile.

The tiger laughed. “I'm sure you're right. But I feel a little sorry for that woman.”

“Well don't, Diamond,” Lacy growled. “The Veronica Chessley was snotty to the judge, threw her weight around all over the place, and she double parked in the handicapped zone. It was the judge's idea to throw her to the lion. I think it did her some good.”

Diamond rolled her eyes. “Fine. I can scare them straight. Good for me. And speaking of eating someone — I'm all hungry now.”

Lacy patted her on the stomach. “Well then, tonight you dine like a performing animal. Beef steak, raw on the bone just how you like it, at the steakhouse.”

Diamond touched her belly where Lacy had patted her. “You don't have to go to so much trouble, I know how expensive beef is.”

Lacy shook a finger at her. “Nonsense. We expense the whole thing to investigations. If it weren't for you they'd have been months finding that safe house of hers, and she might have already skipped town by then.”

“Since you put it that way,” Diamond said with a grin, “I intend to stuff myself! But not until you explain to me why that woman would risk her freedom before the law just to decorate a house.”

“I don't know that I can explain it Diamond, but people can sometimes get hung up on maintaining appearances. Meaning, how things look to themselves and others, even over how things are or should be. She was probably showing a lot of expensive homes for sale, saw how nicely they had been appointed, and wanted that for herself. So she took their things and put them in her own home, only then could she be happy.”

“From what I've just seen she's not going to be very happy in prison,” Diamond observed.

“She never dreamed she would end up in prison. This is all an utter mystery to her, I'm afraid.”

Diamond stepped out into the hall and stretched. Lacy closed the cell door with a click, and reached behind her back. Her hand came up holding a braided leash, with a worn brass snap hook at the end. Diamond said nothing but took the snap in one hand, then with the other found the sturdy iron ring built into her leather collar, and snapped the leash onto it.

They looked at each other fondly for a moment before Lacy said, “Earlier I didn't have a chance to ask you — where did you come up with a name like Tatiana?

“Ah that,” Diamond began. “Well that's the name of an original tiger from long ago.”

“I didn't know your people had names,” Lacy remarked as she checked her watch.

“They don't. That was her stage name. Tatiana was on display at the San Francisco zoo.”

Lacy turned and leash in hand started leading them down the hall. “And what makes her so special?”

Diamond fell into pace behind her, one hand fingering the snap hook at her throat. “According to a story written at the time, on a day after the zoo had closed some young men had stayed behind at the large cat exhibit, and were teasing Tatiana in her grotto. So she jumped out and attacked them.”

“Wait. She jumped out of her exhibit?

“Yeah, right out and over the top of them. She killed one of them on the spot, mauled the others, and after they had run away went looking for them to finish the job.”

“Wow. That was one angry animal. But I don't think this story can have a happy ending.”

“How so?” Diamond asked.

Lacy stopped them in the middle of the hall. “Surely the police arrived and shot her.”

Diamond nodded. “They did come, but that doesn't mean it is a sad story. Tatiana was able to kill an enemy, and got in some hunting after. She was free, for the first time in her life. She died free and never went back to that cage. And any day that ends outside a cage is a good day.”

Lacy laughed behind a hand. “She sounds just like you!” Then as Diamond was grinning down at her she added, “You are right, and though I wish she hadn't killed anyone, that was a good ending. I am happy for her.” Then she looked down at the leash in her hand. “We never talk about this anymore but — is it really okay for you to be collared and always on a leash like this? I mean, it's your idea and everything, but still it seems —”

She ended weakly, then shrugged. “If now you would rather be free like Tatiana — I mean really free —”

Diamond placed a hand on Lacy's arm. “Though I just played that part, the actual thought was never on my mind, and I'll tell you why. People find me terrifying, as well they should, I am dangerous. But when I'm wearing a collar and being lead on a leash it appears to others that you are in control of my nature. They can relax a little and while that is true I can live among you, in the open without a cage, and not create a disturbance. That is what I want. I have had a hard time and have been made to do things for which I am not proud. Now I just want to live among you. Quietly. If possible, ignored. If wearing a collar accomplishes this then I am grateful. I suppose like Veronica I too am maintaining appearances.”

Lacy drew in a deep breath, and then smiled. “You are a remarkable creature, Diamond. I feel fortunate to have you as a friend, even if for some incomprehensible reason you do insist on being my pet.”

Diamond smiled back. “Thank you for your kind words — master.”

Lacy started walking down the hall again, and Diamond fell into pace behind her looking down at the floor seeming as compliant and docile as an ox.

But as they turned the corner Diamond stopped and looked behind her at the distant cell. The leash went tight for a moment before Lacy must have noticed that her animal was not following. Diamond was left to look at the cell, her face expressionless.

“Are you alright?” Lacy asked from further down the hall.

“I spent my entire childhood in a cage,” Diamond said softly.

Lacy said nothing to this. Diamond lingered a moment longer before she turned to follow her master out into the streets and alleys and to a proper meal.

All the world is a stage, all who move there are players, the possessions we gather around ourselves are the costumes we wear through the scenes and settings of the story of our lives. And while her name was not Tatiana, it wasn't Diamond either. None who knew her then knew anything of importance about her, including her master, whom she honestly adored. Her running performance would not conclude for a long time or at least not for a longer time than we can encompass in so short a tale.

For many reasons she could not reveal, Diamond would have to do. That name, and the collar and the leash and the quiet obedience, where all her way of keeping the lid on another secret far more terrible and soul-crushing than just her apparent predatory nature.

Humans put a lot of stock in how things appear, and readily accept pretense as evidence for nearly anything. Since two-hundred times ten centuries before the destroyer of the world had understood the importance of maintaining appearances.