Anna Tambour presents 


The virtuous medlar circle
thoroughly bletted
Predatory Instincts
Chuck McKenzie

It did not think like a human, but had learned to perfectly mimic Its prey, and so It smiled and nodded with apparent empathy as Mrs Titmangel chattered away.
“. . . yes, my Brian was in sales too. Always on the road, away from home. Hardly noticed when he took off ten years back -” she broke off abruptly. “Anyway, hope you haven’t left Mrs Black at home while you’re on the road, nice young man like you?”

It had only the most rudimentary understanding of human language. But the few words in her conversation It did understand, combined with a brief assessment of her tone, expression, body language and pheromones, were sufficient for It to draw an appropriate response from a vast store of memorised phrases. “No. I am not married.”

She nodded happily. “Best thing really. Puts too much strain on a marriage being a travelling salesman. S’pose you get to see the country, though, don’t you? Prob’ly wouldn’t even think of staying in a little guesthouse in a backwater like Hindmarsh if you weren’t here on business. Will you be staying long?”

“I shall be staying for one week. May I pay in advance?” The query would secure her trust.

Mrs Titmangel beamed. “Of course, darl, whatever you like.” She accepted payment, noting it in the reservations book on the front desk. “There we go. Now, I’m usually on the desk until nine p.m., but after that I’ll be in my room  —” she indicated a door under the staircase, “ — so just knock if you need anything. Now, any bags? Just the one? Full of samples, I s’pose. My Brian had one just like it. You can carry it yourself, can’t you? Big strong boy like you. I’ll show you up to your room. Just you staying here at present, but I’m happy to open the dining room for you. Breakfast’s at seven, dinner’s at seven-thirty, although if you prefer to eat at one of the local cafes, just let me know  —” and so on, all the way up two flights of stairs to room 31, where It finally took possession of the key, and – still nodding and smiling – closed and locked the door on her ceaseless prattle.

It put down the bag and regarded the darkened room. Small, dominated by an ancient wooden bed. Tiny ensuite. A chair. Television. Beverage-making paraphernalia. A big window, with heavy curtains tied off to the side. It stepped forward and stood for a moment, looking out over the town, lights twinkling in the dusk.

A new hunting-ground.

It carefully untied the curtains, letting them fall across the glass.

A pause.

Then, with a moist sigh, Its skin seemed to turn inside-out, clothes folding away like the wings of a cockroach. Muscles churned as ropy tentacles uncoiled. Its body collapsed in upon itself as painfully posed struts of cartilage relaxed. Human features sloughed away as It fell to the floor, adopting Its natural form. It flexed luxuriously, then scuttled under the bed, where It curled up and fell immediately into a deep yet guarded sleep.

Several hours later, with the town in darkness, a black shape skittered down the side of the guesthouse, vanishing into the shadows of a neighbouring alley.

POLICEMAN MISSING  screamed the headline.
It stared impassively over the rim of Its cup at the bold print. The disappearance of the policeman would suggest the involvement of organised crime, rather than a lone salesman passing through town, but It did not wholly comprehend this. It simply knew from experience that Its actions would deflect suspicion for the duration of the feeding cycle.

“Not hungry, Mr Black?” Mrs Titmangel folded the paper away, nodding towards Its untouched plate of bacon, eggs, ham steaks, liver, kidney and black pudding. It usually found such fare perfectly acceptable. But cooked . . .

“My apologies,” It said. “I had a late dinner.”

She nodded understandingly. “My Brian had a full fry-up every morning. Used to say it was the best thing after a night on the town  —” she stopped, then smiled nervously.
“S’posed to be terrible for you, I know. All that cholesterol. Still, young man like you should keep his strength up. Cup of tea’s not enough. Nothing like a nice bit of kidney to keep up your iron, ‘specially if you’re running around town all day, chasing sales  —”

It smiled and nodded. “Well,” It said. “I expect I shall be hungry again by dinnertime.”


“Knocked on your door last night,” Mrs Titmangel remarked casually, nibbling a piece of toast. “Remembered your minibar was out of milk, so I knocked, but you didn’t answer. S’pose you must’ve been asleep. Early though, only about eight-thirty, just after dark. P’raps you were out on the town.”

It sensed the query behind her prattle. “I must have been asleep. I had a busy day yesterday.”

“Mm. Only I did knock quite loudly. Not that I wanted to wake you, but I would’ve thought the noise’d wake you if you were in there. Just thought it was a bit odd.”

It remained silent, pretending to study the newspaper.

“Well,” said Mrs Titmangel, after a pause, “none of my business if you were out and about. Just thought it was odd ‘cause you would’ve had to pass the front desk to go out, so I would’ve seen you, or at least heard you from my room, and I didn’t . . . ”
Caution. Suspicion had been aroused. But prior experience had provided a variety of appropriate responses. It leaned forward, favouring Mrs Titmangel with a vaguely flirtatious look. “I can assure you that I was fast asleep, Mrs Titmangel. Which is a shame. Attractive ladies do not come knocking at my door every night.”

“Oh goodness!” she said, giggling. “Just the sort of thing my Brian would’ve said. A real ladies’ man, he was. Always the charmer.” Her eyes darkened. “Bit too much of a charmer, as it happens. Got him into no end of trouble. And who was it always had to bail him out . . .?”

It smiled and nodded, sipping Its tea.



She had remained silent through breakfast. Unusual behaviour, which made It wary. It did not comment, merely sipped Its way through a cup of tea, then made as if to rise.
“So, where were you last night?” she asked, coldly.
It assessed her tone, stance and body-language, and opted for a polite but enquiring smile.

“You weren’t in your room. Knocked on the door to say goodnight, but you didn’t answer, so I thought I’d better check.” Her eyes glittered. “Where were you?”

There was something almost predatory in her demeanour. A danger, to be removed. But to kill so close to the nest before the hunting cycle was over… It hesitated, searching for a suitably pacifying response. “Mrs Titmangel, I appreciate your concern for my welfare, but I do not feel my whereabouts last night are any of your business.”

She stared back impassively. “Out at all hours, just like him, getting himself into trouble, bringing back his little mistakes. Mistakes, he calls them! My God! Expecting me to tidy up after him. Terrible man!” Her eyes narrowed. “I know what you’ve been up to. I imagine the police might think it was their business.”

There was a long pause.

“I … apologise if I have upset you,” It said, eventually.

She shifted slightly in her chair, waiting.

“I shall stay in tonight.”

She nodded guardedly. “Well … it’s a start. You do get me so upset sometimes, Brian.”

It rose from the table. “I shall eat here tonight, if I may, although I shall not be back until about nine o’clock.”

Her smile did not touch her eyes. “Well then, I’ll prepare something special. We can eat in my room. Make it a cosy night in.”

Dangerous, said her body language.

Feeding cycle ends tonight. Then move on.

It arrived back at 8.30 p.m., deliberately early, quietly closing the door behind It and setting Its bag down on the floor. The hallway was dark, the front desk deserted. The door under the stairs was slightly ajar; a thin sliver of light spilled from the gap, cutting across the floorboards. It moved to the foot of the stairs and stood for a moment, listening. No sounds of life from the upper floors. No new guests. It walked over to the door under the stairs, and knocked softly.

No reply.

Carefully pushing the door open, It entered the room beyond. Small, cosy, well-lit. Pastel prints on the walls. Two-seater couch. Thick white carpet.

Mrs Titmangel was nowhere to be seen.

It could smell her, though; feel her warmth. She had been here only moments ago.

The hunt was on.

It grinned, a thin trickle of drool leaking from a seam under Its human jaw. So much more satisfying when It had to work for Its meat. And the inevitable conclusion to this particular hunt would be especially sweet. Annoying woman . . .

It glanced around carefully. In the far corner of the room, the carpet had been folded back slightly, revealing a wooden trapdoor set into the floor; heavy, with a large brass ring attached. It stalked over, reaching out, felt the warmth increase, hooked a finger through the ring and pulled firmly. The trapdoor rose soundlessly on well-oiled hinges. A rickety ladder lead down into blackness.

It leaned forward, peering into the dark. There was nothing to fear, yet It remained cautious, not knowing the exact location of Its prey. Occasionally, prey fought back. Their teeth and nails could cause minor, if inconvenient damage. Quickly and quietly, It descended the ladder.

Reaching the bottom, It paused, adjusting Its vision, trying to take advantage of the faint wash of light from the open trapdoor. But the light merely provided a contrast to the surrounding darkness, making it seem blacker still. It strained Its remaining senses. There was dirt beneath Its feet, and the space felt considerably bigger than the room above. Something moved slightly behind It, dry soil crunching almost imperceptibly as bodyweight shifted from one foot to the other. Flesh rubbed against fibre; fingers on a pull-cord light switch.

Beneath Its human visage, muscles flexed. Tightly-pressed membranes peeled back slightly, ready to fly open. Wait for the light. Allow the prey to see. Those hormones gave the meat a wonderful flavour. It grinned, anticipating the expression on her face.

“Just like my Brian,” said Mrs Titmangel. “Always creeping around where he shouldn’t, off with his girls. Coming home covered in blood, and worse. Mistakes, he’d say. Just mistakes. And always burying his damned mistakes in my fruit cellar. Until eventually I couldn’t take any more. Had to send him away. But damn it, here you are again, creeping around, up to your old tricks! Mistakes!”

Click! The harsh light of a single, hanging lightbulb spattered the interior of the cellar. Dappled the cobwebbed shelves and dust-covered jars of fruit. Spilled across the earthen floor. Pointed gleeful yellow fingers into the shadows in front of It, at the row of seven aged, decay-scented mounds of soil; at the deep, freshly dug hole at the end of the row, a shovel thrust into the pile of displaced soil beside it.

“Expecting me to fix things,” continued Mrs Titmangel, bitterly. “Never cleaning up after himself, stupid man. Blood everywhere. May as well have left his business card at the scene. Well, I did what I could. Hid ‘em away. Buried ‘em. But there were too many questions, people starting to wonder, police closing in. So I had to fix that too, of course. Hide him away where they couldn’t find him. Thought that’d be the end of it. But if you will insist upon coming back  —”

She picked something up, flesh against wood. A piece of shelving? Arming herself.


It spun around with a hiss, membranes expanding, fingers of razored gristle reaching out, jaws unhinging to bite and engulf.

She swung the axe once, the heavy blade splitting Its skull.

“And let that be the end of it,” said Mrs Titmangel, sternly.


'Predatory Instincts' was first published in Borderlands, September 2003.
and was noted in Ellen Datlow’s 2003 Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Recommended Reading List.
Chuck McKenzie was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1970, and still spends much of his time there, he says. Despite his BA in Professional Writing & Literature, he really only turned to writing professionally in order to avoid getting tied down to a 'proper' job - having also worked as a pamphlet distributor,  commercial artist,  performing waiter, tele-marketer,  entertainment consultant, restaurant manager, Amway rep (sorry),
'rat-wrangler' (don't ask), TV actor, retail store manager,  club DJ,
writing tutor, and a strip-show MC.
Chuck's publishing credits include the SF comedy novel
Worlds Apart, and (as co-editor) AustrAlien Absurdities: Comic Tales of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror by Australian Writers,
as well as sales of short fiction and articles to The Age, Altair, Aurealis, AntipodeanSF, Agog! Fantastic Fiction, Daikaiju!,
Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Borderlands,
Orb Speculative Fiction, Passing Strange, Planet Relish, InterNova, Elsewhere and Simulacrum.
Read an interview of Chuck here.
And what is it about Chuck and Giant Monsters?
Coming —
Confessions of a Pod Person. a collection by Chuck McKenzie. Look for it in late 2005, published by MirrorDanse Books.
Chuck's website
Chuck McKenzie can be contacted at
chuckmck1 (at)

The virtuous medlar circle

is part of
Anna Tambour and Others

"Predatory Instincts" copyright © 2003-2005 by Chuck McKenzie, first appeared in Borderlands, September  2003
This short story appears here with thanks to Chuck McKenzie, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This story is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2005