If Zoey Ashe had known she was being stalked by a man who intended to kill her and then slowly eat her bones, she would have worried more about that and less about getting her cat off the roof.
Said cat was on said roof because it was terrified of the Santa Claus hologram in the front yard, a tacky Christmas decoration Zoey’s mother had brought home from Walmart two weeks ago. Everybody else in the trailer park had them, so she apparently had felt pressured to demonstrate her Christmas spirit with this dead-eyed apparition that unenthusiastically said “HO-HO-HO-MERRY CHRISTMAS" in a flat robotic voice to anyone who approached. Zoey thought it was a little unsettling herself, but every time the cat saw it blink to life, he would hiss and go streaking off to some high place where he thought the translucent bearded devil couldn’t reach him. So that’s why on the evening of December 16 Zoey was standing in the snow trying to coax the cat off of the roof while, just a block away, a man was waiting to abduct her and stream her slow mutilation to half a million viewers.
For eight hours, Zoey’s pursuer had been staking out the trailer where the twenty-two-year-old lived with her mother, waiting for the most dramatic moment to make his appearance. Catching Zoey in bed or the shower would be optimal, but he got the sense that this particular young woman had no rigid schedule for doing either of those things. All day he had been watching her through a dirty bay window that put their trailer’s whole, sad living room on display. Zoey had begun her day promptly at one PM by waking up on the sofa and initiating a “morning” routine that involved going to the bathroom, returning to the sofa, and then staring blankly at the ceiling for an hour. Then she read for a bit, ate a bowl of cereal, and did something with her hair that involved wrapping part of it in tinfoil while a nature documentary about pack hunters played on the TV behind her. Now the sun had gone down and Zoey, still in her pajamas, was standing in her yard and yelling up at a cat that had jumped onto the roof. Her stalker had intended to send the news media a video of his entire pursuit of the girl, but he knew that this part would have to be edited way down.
He was out of patience. He resolved to move in for the kill and even switched on the tiny camera he kept pinned to his lapel, so his fans could watch it live. But then, at the last moment, he had second thoughts. Mainly about branding.
The man had called himself “The Jackal” for most of his short but prolific career, but had decided to switch to “The Hyena” after watching a pack of them tear apart a moose during the documentary that had played on Zoey’s television earlier. He thought it was more fitting—hyenas were wild, unpredictable predators and had the most powerful jaws in the animal kingdom (that last part was what had really sold him on it). But then again, the documentary seemed to show them only hunting in groups (where he was definitely a loner) and, unless he misunderstood, the female hyenas had penises, and even gave birth through them. That was a problem—when he became famous and the press started speculating on why he chose that moniker, he didn’t want pundits throwing around a bunch of wild theories about his genitals. But if he amended his manifesto to address the issue, or included photographic evidence that he had a normal penis, then that would just make him seem like the weirdo for bringing it up. Maybe “The Wolf” was a better name. Or “The Shark.”
As he sat in his rental car and wrestled with this decision, Zoey went inside the trailer, then returned dragging a kitchen chair through the door. She tried to use it as a step stool to reach the cat on the roof, at which point she immediately overbalanced and fell off, landing hard in the snow. She gathered herself, brushed snow off her butt, mounted the chair again, and searched in vain for a cat that, unbeknownst to her, had already jumped down the other side of the trailer. This went on for a very long time, before Zoey finally noticed the cat was not on the roof, but rather lying in the snow under the very chair she was standing on. Exasperated, the girl trudged back inside cradling the cat with one arm and dragging the chair with the other. The Shark (“The Piranha”?) decided he would wait for her to get settled again, then make his move.
Instead, Zoey reappeared at the door and headed for the old and busted Toyota Furia in her driveway. Her stalker wasn’t worried about losing her if she left—the advantage of self-driving cars for a man in The Piranha’s line of work was that their navigation systems were very easy to latch on to. He could just set his own to follow the same route and the car would do the tailing for him—he could literally stalk the girl while relaxing and playing a game on his phone. He watched as Zoey scraped frost from the Toyota’s windshield with what appeared to be a spatula, and then pulled out of her driveway, leaving behind a dark rectangle in the snow as if the car had forgotten to take its shadow with it. The Piranha gave her a ten-second head start, and then told his rental car to follow. He tried to picture the headlines that would tick along the bottom of the news feeds next week, like, “The Piranha Claims His Sixth Victim.” Hmmm, maybe “The Leopard” would be better. It needed to be some kind of biting animal, otherwise the surgery would have been a waste.
He rubbed the itchy line of stitches that ran from one temple to the other, looping under his jawbone like a chin strap. He’d had his entire lower jaw and upper teeth augmented with a motorized black market implant consisting of a graphene lattice frame and titanium chompers that could bite through metal. As soon as he had gotten home from the surgery, he had turned on his camera and announced his new powers to the world by biting through a hunk of copper pipe. He thought it made for an ominous demonstration of his new abilities, even if he’d had to quickly turn off the camera at that point because he had cut up his tongue pretty badly. No matter—the jaws worked, and his next test would be on Zoey Ashe’s fingers. Then he’d just chew his way up from there.
This, he thought, was what he had always been missing: a gimmick.
She made a left turn, then another. Circling the block. Did she suspect she was being followed? The Leopard would have to be careful—prey animals were weak, but alert and wary. The girl surely could sense the malevolent predator that lurked behind her in the darkness.