HoC Ep. 17: God Save the Queen

Heather felt the tip of her pencil tear into the paper. Rune’s front paws, planted on the two sides of the open phonebook, obscured the number she had been copying down. “What do you mean, hire someone?” Rune asked. He stood there deliberately so she had no choice but to pay complete attention to him.

Heather scrubbed the eraser across the now illegible phone number for house painter number six. “The house is too big to do it myself,” she said.

“Half of it is stone,” Rune countered. He hooked a paw at her pencil, but she dodged out of the way and went back to erasing. The paper started to shred more. “And I would help you.”

“Oh, so it will take an actual month of Sundays to finish, instead of just a figurative one.” She gave up on erasing and just crossed out what was left of the entry. “Did you miss the part where I have a deadline for this?” She started copying it out again.

“Assuming Yvonne was telling the truth,” Rune said. He pounced forward. Now his paws obscured the paper and he sat on the phone book. “Would you stop fussing with that for a minute?”

Heather set the pencil down with a snap. “I’m trying to get this done so I can go into town and call them all in one shot and get prices to compare.”

“No one can make you sell your home just because the paint is peeling.”

“No, but they can make life unpleasant enough that it stops being worth it to stay.” She shoved her chair back and left Rune behind as she jogged down the stairs.

He followed her, of course, and cornered her again while she pulled on her shoes by the front door. “We’re not going to leave, no matter what they do.”

“Fantastic,” Heather said and yanked on the laces. “How about you start answering the door, so you can deal with the next person who comes here on George frickin’ Ellison’s behalf?” She stood up and opened the door onto a hot May morning. “If painting the house gets them off my back, we’re going to paint the house.”

“Where are you going?” Rune asked before she could close the door.

“To get the mail,” she said. She felt viciously glad to know that Rune would be disinclined to follow her that far down the road. He could make it about half way, just until the street came into view, before he balked and that was with Heather coaxing him along.

At the bottom of the hill, Heather jerked on the door of the mailbox to get it open. That was one more thing that needed repair or replacement and it was one more thing she would probably have to do on her own. Behind her, the rumble of a car’s engine grew as it came around the turn. Her whole plan for the day was shot because Rune wanted everything they fixed on the house to be a joyous sharing experience. She took out the handful of letters and slammed the door shut again.

Heather knew it would be a lot of work to organize the House around avoiding human painters. She shuffled through the letters as she started back up the hill. Back on the street, a car door slammed; probably someone lost again, trying to find the Shadow Hills entrance on the other side of the hill. It was not exactly a cake walk when the exterminators came out, mostly thanks to Rune himself. But Yvonne’s warning was just the latest piece of evidence that George Ellison was out to get Heather. And Heather was not going to sit still for it.

Heather was still out of sight of the house when she heard a footstep crunch on the gravel behind her. Great, someone was lost and wandering around on the property. She turned just as two arms whipped around her. There was a flash of white and a hand wrapped in cloth smashed into her face hard enough to split her lip where it hit against her teeth. She took a gasping breath and her head swam. Fumes!

Topaz peeked out of the backpack where Umber left it unzipped. Below him in the dark, popcorn-scented bottom of the backpack, Rafflesia yelped as he stepped on her while fighting to stand upright. Umber turned right and headed up the walkway. Behind her and where Topaz could see, the marquee of the theater came into view again as they walked out from under it. Birds pecked around the ground while it was still early and the shopping center was mostly empty. “That was amazing,” he said. “Can we go again tomorrow?” He thought of all the kittens at home who would probably love human movies.

Umber continued her leisurely walk but answered him in a low voice. “Hey, movies aren’t cheap, especially when someone insists on popcorn with extra butter.” She paused as a human passed them going the opposite way and continued when Topaz reemerged from the backpack. “Plus, I’m spending too much as it is. My truck takes a lot of gas to drive six hours down here and six back every weekend.”

Rafflesia shoved him to the side so she could look out. “You wouldn’t have to check up on us if someone would go back to the House with me.” She licked her lips. “I’ve got popcorn stuck in my teeth still,” she muttered.

“Okay, okay,” Topaz said. Next to them, the automatic doors of a grocery store slid open. “Blame it all on me. Does anyone else smell salmon?” The doors started to close, only to reopen again halfway through. A familiar woman stood by them, oblivious to their frustrations, and hunched over a cell phone. Topaz grabbed Rafflesia by the scruff of her neck and pulled her down into the backpack. “I know her.”

While Umber pretended to examine a display of potted plants with Mother’s Day-themed decorations, Topaz listened in on the woman. “Slow down. What are you talking about?”

Topaz strained to hear. He could just make out the voice of the person on the other end. “…Lee…Just come…what I’m doing…”

“What’s she saying?” Rafflesia demanded.

Topaz pushed her away with a hind foot. The woman said, “Alright, I’ll be there. Just don’t.” She hesitated then walked quickly away from the store. “Don’t do anything dangerous.”

“Umber, run, get your truck,” Topaz said. “We have to follow her.”

Umber, to her credit, only paused to ask why once they were in the truck and following the woman’s car out into the suburbs. On the seat, Topaz put his paws up on the arm rest and watched out the window. Umber squeezed through the last second of a traffic light to keep up with the other car. “You’re sure she’s talking about Heather?”

Topaz spared her a quick glance. “There’s something going on between her and Heather. That other person sounded bad. I just know.”

“She’s slowing down,” Rafflesia said, watching from over Topaz’s shoulder.

“Shit, look,” Umber said as she downshifted and slowed to a crawl. “That’s a gated community. I can’t follow her without a pass code.”

The car turned into a driveway and stopped at a box mounted on a post. Topaz watched as an arm reached through the window and pressed buttons on the box. “Roll down the window.”

Umber leaned across the seat and cranked down the window, still driving down the road as the gap between them and the other car closed. “I have to pass by.”

“Go get help,” Topaz ordered. Then he dove through the open window. He landed on the side of the road at a run and bolted into the cover of the hedges that lined the driveway. He heard Umber’s truck accelerate away as he chased the car. So long as he kept up, he could guide the others there as well. So long as Rafflesia could get someone to come help him.

George led Susanna into his garage, flicking on the light as he went. The room smelled of oil and dust. Five degrees cooler than the rest of the house, it felt like he could use it as an extra freezer. “You’ll have to help me get her into the house. I had a devil of a time getting her into the trunk in the first place.”

Behind him, Susanna scurried across the concrete and over to the trunk. “She’s still in there? She could be dead!”

George rolled his eyes and bent to pull the latch inside the car. “I checked on her when I got home. She’s just unconscious.”

Susanna backed away as the trunk popped up an inch. “Won’t she be awake by now?”

“How should I know?” He went around to the back of the car. “I tied her hands, at any rate.” He lifted the trunk lid. “Oh, hell.”

Susanna leaned forward. “Is that a cat?” She looked over at him and blinked theatrically. Color rushed back into her pale face. “You kidnapped a cat?”

“Don’t be stupid,” George said, mind racing. A white and brown cat lay with its head sticking out of the collar of Lee’s shirt and the tip of its tail flicking at the hem. The hastily tied ropes lay in a knot toward the back of the trunk. He should have thought of this. She was one of them, whatever they were. Lee’s jeans were piled at the other end of the trunk, bent at the hip and knee just as he had left her curled up. Had she changed because he knocked her out?

“George, are you sure you’re all right? I think maybe the stress has gotten to you.” She set a hand on his shoulder, fingers taking up a pinch of shirt, and tried to lead him away from the car. “You might have had a nervous break–”

“That is Lee,” he said and batted her hand away. “I would have pictures to prove it, but I broke my phone and almost got caught and–”

“That’s a cat,” Susanna insisted. She pointed to it as she backed away. “And pictures to prove what?” She edged around the car and toward the door. “You’re scaring me.”

The cat was still asleep, so he wrapped it up in the shirt and carried it back to the house. “Where did the clothing come from then? Huh? And why is the cat wearing them?”

Susanna edged away from him through the house, always a step ahead but never quite ready to turn and leave. “It probably got cold. God, where did you even get the poor thing?”

George turned into the guest bathroom downstairs. No windows and only one door meant he could keep the creature contained easily enough. “Look, give me a day. I’m sure she’ll change back. I mean, she spends so much time as a human, she can’t stay like this for long.” He opened the door to the shower and put the bundled cat on the floor of the tub. With the door closed, it could not jump out or run out the door when they tried to come in.

Susanna looked away. He would have to keep her away from the phones in case she got a clever idea to call the police. “A day. But! But if nothing happens, I want you to see a doctor.”

George shrugged. Really, this was better than he hoped. He could get video evidence and beat down Lee in one fell swoop. “Sure thing. You’ll see. I’m not crazy. I’ve got everything under control.”

Rune paced in the kitchen. Even with it full of cats, the lack of Heather made it seem sinister. Umber sat on the floor and jingled her car keys restlessly. The constant rattle set Rune even more on edge. “We knew something had happened. I went looking for her when she didn’t come back. When I found the mail on the ground, I knew she was gone.”

Rafflesia squirmed as her mother nearly smothered her with attention. “Topaz said he knew the woman.”

Rune nodded. “That will be Susanna. And if she’s involved, you can bet it’s George Ellison she went to see.”

Carlisle, who had been sulking ever since he found out Rune and Rafflesia had conspired to bring Topaz home, finally spoke up. “The man who wanted to buy the house? I thought Heather settled that months ago.”

“He knows something about us,” Rune said. “He’s trying to blackmail Heather.”

The roomful of cats erupted into worried murmurs. Carlisle said, “Why wasn’t I told? We could have done–”

“Done what?” Rune interrupted. “No human will believe him if he tells them about changing-cats.”

“And if he gets the perfectly mundane Animal Control up here?” Carlisle countered.

Rafflesia pushed her mother away and stood between Rune and Carlisle. “Um, guys, aren’t you missing the point? Whoever has Heather and whatever the reason, we have to go get her back. Topaz is waiting for us.”

Rune huffed. He glanced at Carlisle, who looked as abashed as Rune felt. “So he knows where she is. How do we get us in and her out?”

“It’s a gated community,” Umber said. Rune could see everyone watch her warily. Even if she was helping them, no one seemed comfortable with the human who suddenly had an all-access pass to the House. “Getting to the front door is going to be difficult.”

Rune glanced at Dopple, who pinned her ears, but nodded. “I can get in the back door, but a cat should go find her. I won’t be able to hide as a human.”

“You’re not getting it,” Umber insisted. “How are you even going to get past the gate? And if someone notices you, how will explain being there?”

Rafflesia perked up. “You need a disguise or something.”

Carlisle cleared his throat. “I, ah, might have something.” He turned to Rune. “Do you think your old uniform will still fit?”

“My old…You kept that?”

“What is it?” Rafflesia asked. She seemed a little too excited about the whole masquerade part of the plan. Rune wondered what she imagined his uniform consisted of.

“I’ve got the uniform, the ID, I’ve even got the taser,” Carlisle said.

At Rafflesia’s baffled look, Rune explained, even as he wished they would just forget the whole idea. “I worked as a security guard.” In another lifetime, Rune thought. All the times he hid out in the attic to get away from the memories of his human life, there must have been a suitcase tucked away with all the reminders waiting for him.

“That’s perfect,” Umber said. “You can provide a diversion at the front door while Dopple breaks in and Topaz gets her out.”

“He’s not going in alone,” Rune said. “He’ll need backup in case only one of them answers the door.”

“I’ll go,” Rafflesia volunteered.

Rune heard a chorus of other voices with his when he immediately said, “No, you won’t.”

Dorian, flanked by several other of the House’s best hunters, said, “We’ll put together a team.” The others walked away with him, muttering about their respective talents.

“You’ve met this George,” Dopple said. “What if he recognizes you?”

Rune shrugged. Of all the parts of the plan, that was the least of his concerns. “I’ll improvise.”

“What’s that mean?” Rafflesia asked scornfully. She was obviously pissed off she was not part of the rescue team.

Carlisle hooked a paw over her shoulders and pulled her away. “I think he means he’ll hit him. Rather hard, probably. Come help me find that uniform.”

The group broke up to pursue their respective tasks. That left Rune alone to face his own preparation. He turned to Umber. “I need you to get something from Heather’s rooms for me.” He took a deep breath. There was no avoiding it, not if he wanted to get Heather back. Damn, but he wanted to get Heather back right now. He let the shaky breath out again. “Cat’s bane.”

Something wet dripped on Heather’s face. The backs of her hind legs burned. She wiped a paw across her face and opened her eyes. A shower? The faucet dripped noisily into the drain. She pushed the shirt up over her head and slipped out of it. When had she changed?

She stretched a leg up past her head and licked at the stinging skin along the back. There was blood in her fur and scrapes under that. Her lips felt bruised. She remembered the sound of gravel crunching. The driveway? The opaque glass of the shower prevented her from seeing more of the room. Where was she? She switched legs, grateful for the excuse to concentrate on the calming rhythms of grooming.

When she felt clean again, she put her paws up on the edge of the tub. She hooked at the closed door, but could not get it to slide open. The House did not have any sliding doors on the showers; they all had curtains. She was not at home.

The last thing she remembered was gravel crunching. And a car. There had been a car. And before that, she had argued with Rune about painting the house. She retreated to her shirt, which was dry and warm, especially compared to the floor of the shower. If she had her shirt here, but not the rest of her clothes, then she must have changed somewhere else and been moved.

Beyond the milky walls of the shower, another door opened. Human footsteps. The door closed again. Heather backed into the far corner of the shower to put as much space as possible between her and whoever was out there. The shower door slid open.

“Hey, kitty, are you awake?” Everything slammed into place in Heather’s mind when Susanna Dahl poked her head into the shower with a dumb smile on her face. Someone had attacked her, knocked her out, and taken her somewhere else. And if Susanna was there, Heather did not have to guess who her attacker had been.

Susanna put a plastic container full of water on the floor inside the shower. “Are you thirsty, kitty? I bet you are, huh?”

Susanna had no idea this was Heather. So she must not have seen her change. Good, great, perfect, Heather thought with grim determination. She mewed as sweetly as she could. She walked over to the water and sniffed. She lapped up some and let it wash the cottony taste out of her mouth.

Susanna stretched her hand out. “Come here, honey.”

Heather came close enough to rub her head up into Susanna’s palm. “I would like to bite you in a fatal way,” she said in cat-speak.

“Oh, what a good kitty,” Susanna said, oblivious to Heather’s threats, and scratched down her spine.

Heather could just see a door and a towel rack behind Susanna. “If I get out of here, I’m going to piss in your shoes before I leave,” Heather said and purred at the thought.

There was a knock at the door. “I’m coming in,” said a voice muffled by the door. Susanna sighed and closed the shower door again. The bathroom door opened and closed. Now the voice was clear and Heather could tell it was Ellison. “Is she awake?”

“Yes, but she’s still just a cat,” Susanna said. She spoke softly and sounded at least a little scared. Heather could see her silhouette in the glass bend deferentially toward Ellison. “George, she came right over and let me pet her.” Under the submission, though, Heather heard defiance. She doesn’t believe him. That means he doesn’t have proof of Heather changing either or he would have shown it to Susanna.

Ellison loomed huge in the door when he opened it. Heather chirruped at him and wove her body in a figure-eight. Heather thought of her mother, back before Heather was old enough to change, and how Heather would weave between her legs with just that motion and beg to be let up onto the counter while Poppy cooked.

“You don’t fool me,” Ellison said. He did not try to reach in, no doubt expecting an attack. He closed the door. Heather heard the lid of a toilet close. His silhouette sat on it just outside the shower. “I’d like to ask you again if you won’t consider selling me that house,” he said, all easy charm like he was in an office talking to a human.

Heather concentrated on keeping up the charade of being a normal cat. If she could see them, they could probably see her. And if she could just get Susanna on her side, she might bluff her way out of this.

Rune hoisted Dopple up over the top of the brick wall surrounding the front of the community. The street outside remained silent and dark under the light of the less than half-full moon. A new moon would have made it easier for them, but they all hated waiting even this long to have the cover of night. “I’m too damn old for this shit,” Rune groaned as he hauled himself up and over.

They met the others up the street, keeping in the shadows of houses for the moment. His feet crushed jasmine vines under his boots, sending up waves of fragrance as he crouched in the dark. Topaz loped over to him. He stopped with his front paws on Rune’s knees and panted. “I followed them to the house, but I haven’t seen Heather.”

“You did a good job,” Rune said and ran a hand down Topaz’s back. “Take us there.”

Topaz sent Rune up the street on foot. He walked in the open now. The old blue work pants were a little tight about the waist, but the belt fit. He considered pulling the taser from it as soon as someone answered the door and zapping them, but the rest of them had convinced him that surgical precision would be the goal.

Topaz appeared and disappeared as he led both Rune and the cats to the house. Rune waited in the shadows by the house. In the backyard, Dopple would be picking the lock of whatever door she could find. Only once they were in and had a chance to even find Heather would it be worthwhile for Rune to create a distraction. He just needed to keep Ellison, and the woman if he was lucky, out of the way while they got Heather out. He pulled the baseball cap lower over his eyes.

Topaz jumped onto the wall around the house and silently signaled Rune. Go. The doorbell rang in the recesses of the house. Rune self-consciously straightened the name tag over his heart. The shirt smelled foreign, like a relic from someone else’s life. He heard the deadbolt turn.

“What?” Ellison barked. A vein stood out along his neck.

Rune touched the brim of his hat. “Good evening, sir. We’ve had reports of a loud disturbance in this area and we’re just checking it out.” He slowed his speech to a drawl. Just doing my job, no need to panic. “Have you seen or heard anything suspicious tonight?”

Rune could see Ellison squinting against the porch light to see his face. He shifted to hide his face better while letting Ellison get a look at the name tag and the company insignia on his left arm. “We haven’t heard anything. Someone reported us?”

Guilty conscience, Rune thought. “No, sir. Someone called about gunfire, but we suspect it may be someone setting off illegal fireworks.”

“Well, thank you, but we’re fine.”

“All the same, sir, we’re advising residents to stay indoors tonight.” He left off the usual warning to lock all doors and windows. The last thing he wanted to do was remind Ellison to check those.

Ellison shut the door on him with a thin-lipped thanks. Damn. He was lucky if that was five minutes. Rune exhaled hard and walked stiffly back down to the street. He hoped he had bought them enough time.

George snarled under his breath and headed out to the kitchen. This was taking too damn long. It was time to up the stakes. He pulled a black plastic trash bag from the box under the sink. Susanna could believe whatever she wanted, but he knew that was Lee and he knew she understood him. This whole charade needed to end now. He took a roll of packing tape from the drawer of miscellaneous screw drivers and scissors. A little near death experience should get things moving.

When he heard the scream, he dropped the bag and tape and ran to the bathroom. Susanna chanted variations of “oh, my god.” He heard cats hissing. Shit. He grabbed the edge of the doorway and stumbled to a stop.

“They opened the door,” Susanna wailed. A pair of cats had her cornered in the tiny space between the toilet and the sink. Another pulled open the sliding door of the shower.

“Stop them! Don’t just stand there,” he shouted and dove for the shower door. Something hit him in the head. He caught his balance on the towel rack just as a fourth cat, one he had not noticed, raked its claws from his temple, across his ear, and down to the back of his neck.

The scratches stung, setting one side of his face on fire. The thin skin of his forehead bled profusely until he was blinking it out of his eye. He reached up and grabbed the first handful of furry body he could find. It yowled right in his ear. The whole room echoed with screams and hisses. He flung the cat as hard as he could. He heard a yelp and a clatter of broken glass.

Where was Lee? George scrubbed at his face and left a wash of blood across the back of his hand. The shower door stood open. He spun, trying to find her. A white and brown tail disappeared around the corner of the bathroom door. He lurched after her. Something caught his arm and held him back.

“They came to rescue her,” Susanna said, voice high and reedy with shock. “Oh, god, the cats knew how to find her.”

“I told you,” he growled and shook her off. Susanna’s guards had disappeared. Lee and her savior were gone. Even the cat George threw into the mirror had vanished. A bloody mess on his head, a shattered mirror, and a handful of shed fur were all he had left.

He ran through the house. How had they gotten in? And more importantly, had they gotten out yet? If he could catch them all, Lee would fold. Surely, if he could beat her whole damn family or whatever they were, she would give up.

Susanna stumbled into his back when he stopped at the laundry room door. It stood open. Beyond it, there was a vine-covered wall and darkness. There was no sound and no movement. They were all gone.

He shook Susanna by the shoulders. “What did you do?”

She slapped at his hands. “There was a knock on the door. I thought it was you.” She pushed away from him so hard that as soon as he released her, she fell backwards to the floor. She glared up at him and rubbed a hand over her shin. There were razor-thin streaks of blood on them and huge shreds in her nylons. “This was your plan.”

George turned away and slammed the open door shut again. He could feel the blood starting to dry into a cracked skin on his face. “And my mistake was bringing you along,” he said. Learn from your mistakes, he thought. Do it better next time.

Topaz pounced on Rafflesia. “And Dorian was all, ‘Rawr! I kill you now!'” He sprang away from her and collapsed into the waiting masses of cats. “And the man was all, “Yaa! Save me! I must scream and flail now.”

Dorian laughed weakly. He had an ice pack wrapped in a dish towel pressed to his aching back. “I’m just sorry I didn’t go straight for his eyes. I hope he dislocated his shoulder throwing me like that.”

Topaz butted heads with him. “It was awesome, man. Heather and I just ran right between his legs.” He pantomimed a bob and weave maneuver. “Out the door and down the street, thank you very much.”

Rafflesia squealed and tackled Topaz, completely delighted with the full-body retelling of their daring rescue. “Wait, wait, tell me about the woman. What about her?”

Topaz rolled over and, as he did, he saw a bobtailed rump retreating from the doorway. He grinned at Rafflesia and wriggled away. “You’ll have to ask them. ‘Cuse me a minute.” Behind him, he heard someone say, “We head-butted the door to sound like knocking…”

He bounded up the stairs just as Carlisle disappeared into his room. He hadn’t seen Carlisle once since returning to the House. He had expected some sort of drama. He nosed open the door and slipped into the dark room. But Heather had just said he was the Queen’s Official Spy, which seemed to mean he got to stay. Then there had been Rafflesia and Umber and a whole house of cats who wanted to hear how he — Topaz! — had saved the Queen’s life.

Up on the bed, Carlisle’s gray body stood out against the yellow of a familiar towel. He had it wadded up around him, just the way Topaz liked to sleep on it. Topaz sat at the side of the bed and looked up. Carlisle turned his face away from the window and over to Topaz, his eyes flashing teal. Topaz struggled to keep quiet. He had to let Carlisle speak first. He had to know he would speak.

Carlisle looked away again and Topaz feared for a long moment that it had been a dismissal. But Carlisle finally said, “I think Heather was right all along.” Topaz opened his mouth to ask what he meant, but Carlisle kept talking. “Rune willingly took cat’s bane tonight. He went down to the mailbox to find Heather when she disappeared.”

Topaz had been too worried about Heather to really think about what it meant when he first saw Rune crouched in the bushes, unexpectedly human and out in the world. Even now, Topaz wanted to tell Carlisle he hadn’t come to talk about Rune.

“What you did, that day,” Carlisle said haltingly. The words dried up in Topaz’s mouth. “You saved him. And now you’ve saved Heather as well. Because you keep doing stupid, reckless things that put you and everyone else in danger.”

“I think there was a compliment in there,” Topaz said at last when Carlisle’s monologue seemed to have stalled out.

Carlisle curled his body away, turning his back to Topaz. “I’m keeping this towel,” he said quietly.

Topaz swished his tail happily. Even if Carlisle never admitted it, Topaz knew now he had been missed as much as he had missed — well, everything and everyone. “I’ll just borrow something to replace it.” He went over to the closet and, with a jump, pulled one of Carlisle’s vests down from its hanger. Topaz dragged it in his teeth over to the door. The fabric was soft and smelled like Carlisle and mothballs and detergent. “Good night.”

On his way out the door, he heard Carlisle say, “Welcome home.”

Heather picked clothing out of her dresser with fingers that still shook. She couldn’t bring herself to go into the bathroom just yet. The idea of being locked in a bathroom again set her heart racing. She looked back over by her bed, where Rune stood at attention, facing the wall. He had brought her cat’s bane when she had been too shaken to get the emergency pills she kept in the cupboard.

“I told Umber she could stay the night.” She stepped into a pair of panties and steadied herself against the nightstand. When that made the lamp rattle a little, she saw Rune half turn to her. He couldn’t seem to decide if it was more important to avert his eyes or to check on her wellbeing.

“I’m fine,” Heather said and pulled a sleep shirt over her head. There had been no point in trying to send him away while she changed. Rune had been no more than six inches away from her since they met up at Umber’s waiting truck. “You can turn around now.”

Rune stood with his hands jammed in his pockets. The tails of the button-down shirt had been pulled out over the ill-fitting pants and the plain tie fluttered loose at the collar. He was the best thing she had ever seen. “Are you sure?”

It took Heather a moment to remember that he was asking if she was fine, not if he could turn around. “I’ve just got some grazes on the backs of my legs. I think he dragged me to his car once I passed out.” She could see the hot blood rush to Rune’s face. Every so often, something would remind him of what had happened and he would start stomping around like he wanted to kill something. “There’s antibiotic cream in the medicine cabinet,” Heather said to distract him.

When he came back with it, he put his hands on her waist and turned her around. “Let me,” he said and she felt him drop to his knees behind her. He slid a warm hand up the back of her calf and just waited there until she hitched the hem of the shirt up to the tops of her thighs.

The cream was cold when he dabbed it on the first patch of raw skin just below her knee. She hissed at the sting of it and Rune’s already gentle hands became the faintest of sensations. Feather touches raised goose bumps on her legs as he moved up to her thighs. Her hands tightened on the bundle of fabric knotted in them.

When he finished, he pressed a kiss into the small of her back. A rush of desire hit Heather hard enough to catch the breath in her throat. His hands were still on her thighs with his thumbs slipping just under the edge of the shirt.

She felt disappointed when he dropped his hands to brace against his knees as he pushed himself up off the floor. She heard his knees creak and could not stifle a laugh. The laugh faded away as his arms curled around her. By her ear, he said, “What’s so funny?”

She turned around in his embrace and put her hands on his shoulders. “Did I wear you out, old guy?”

Rune glared at her but his mouth quirked up. The beginning of stubble showed gray on his cheeks. “You should talk. Aren’t you a little old to be running off like this? I had to scale a wall, twice, to get you back.”

Heather took a step backward. He followed and bent to kiss her, more hesitantly than she liked, even if she did have a bruised lip. She cupped her hands around his cheeks to feel the soft rasp of stubble against her palms and the hard line of his jaw. “I guess you’re too tired then, after your adventure,” she said between kisses.

Rune did not ask what she meant. He didn’t play hard to get. He just moved her back another step so her legs touched the edge of the bed. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed hard. “I would do anything to get you.”

Heather tipped them both down onto the bed. “You already have me.”

Previous Episode :: Back to Index :: Next Episode

HoC Ep. 16: A Jury of Your Peers

George knew, when he saw her car in the driveway, that he had company, but he hoped it was not so even as he opened the unlocked front door and walked into the living room. The coffee table had sprouted a forest of Chinese take-out boxes and paper-wrapped chopsticks and plastic packets of soy and chili sauces. He let his briefcase drop to the floor by the hall closet, thudding on the hardwood floor. On the couch, Susanna jumped and twisted around to face him. She had that nervous, twitchy expression, like a panicked bird, on her face again. Obviously, the two weeks of peace he had bought himself when he gave her a key to the house had run out. They were back to clinging again.

“You’ve been having so many late nights; I thought you would like this better than going out somewhere. It’s from the one you like,” Susanna said. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear then repeated the gesture a few more times as he crossed the room.

“Is it still hot?” He undid his tie and draped it on the back of the couch. He wanted to ask her if she didn’t have a job of her own, but lately she was on some sort of personal crusade to mother him.

“I reheated it a few minutes ago. This is about the time you’ve been finishing work lately.” Her eyes flicked to the time display on the stereo. “How was your day?”

George snapped apart a set of chopsticks and stabbed them into a container of chow mein. He grunted as he slurped up a mouthful of noodles. Over the edge of the container, he saw Susanna’s hands fidgeting in her lap. He flicked the chopsticks towards the other containers. “Eat,” he said after swallowing the noodles.

Susanna picked pieces of slightly limp zucchini from a container. She chewed at the ends of her chopsticks between bites and watched him. She was in a determined mood then. He stood the chopsticks up in the noodles and leaned back. “You want to know how my day was?” She smiled and grimaced and winced all at once. “Not good, that’s how. You want the details? Of course.”

He picked up a different container and shoveled some kind of chicken into his mouth. It tasted like soggy cotton to him. Greasy, soggy cotton. “Well, three of the developments have run over budget. Two of the completed ones are having trouble filling.” The beef had too much chili in it and he felt it burn down his throat and settle in to rot around his heart. “One of my top luxury developments is experiencing some sort of goddamn exodus.” He pushed the food away and wiped his face with a paper napkin. “Oh, and the board of directors is holding a vote on Monday.” He threw the wadded up napkin across the room.

“What kind of vote?” Susanna asked. Her fingers dimpled the paper carton in her hands. Like she couldn’t guess. Who had told women it was attractive to play dumb all the time?

“A vote of no confidence.” His voice rose. He shouldn’t have to put up with this shit in his own home at the end of a hard day. He wanted a beer and a basketball game and some frigging peace and quiet. “A vote to replace me as president.” He slammed a foot into the edge of the coffee table. “Of my company. I made that company.” A tower of cartons tipped over and tumbled to the floor. The top one popped open and spilled white rice across the carpet.

George heaved himself off the couch and turned to the kitchen to get that beer. It was the only thing he seemed likely to get that night. He heard Susanna slide off the couch and start scraping spilled rice onto a napkin. For once, George did not have to worry about cleaning up some pointless mess.

Heather danced from paw to paw on the counter as Carlisle took out the platter of food she had put in the refrigerator the night before. She could hardly remember the years when Saturdays were a source of dread. Now they meant an excuse to spend Friday cooking something frivolous and delightful and Saturday eating and lounging and walking with Rune. Carlisle took so long easing the plastic wrap away from the plate of deviled eggs that Heather almost grabbed it with her teeth.

Rune sniffed. “Curry?”

“Curry eggs and BLT eggs and Mediterranean eggs. I love deviled eggs. I may die of cholesterol poisoning, but at least I’ll die happy.”

Valoria jumped up on the counter with them. “Something smells good. Having a picnic again, dears?”

“Sure are,” Heather said. “Try some. I made more than enough.”

Valoria nibbled politely on half an egg. “Carlisle, have you heard anything from Rafflesia?”

Carlisle folded the plastic wrap into a little square. “Not yet, but you know what teenagers are like.”

Valoria licked a bit of bright yellow filling from the tip of her nose. “I suppose it was too much to expect a letter as soon as she got settled.”

Rune looked up from his second half. “I am absolutely certain, if she had so much as a stuffy nose, Umber would have written to you herself.”

Valoria cocked her head. “I’m quite surprised to hear you say that.”

“I spoke to her extensively before Rafflesia decided to go with her. I have complete confidence in her.”

Heather twitched an ear at him. Complete confidence? But Valoria seemed substantially comforted by this. She finished her egg, praising Heather rather excessively, and left again. When Carlisle started to leave, Heather hooked a claw in his sweater sleeve to slow him. “Why not take the day off? We can’t eat all this by ourselves.”

Carlisle scratched behind her ear for a second. “Thank you, but I have work to do. Save me some leftovers.”

“Sure thing,” Heather said to his disappearing back. He had been distant and weird lately, but she was more interested at the moment in Rune’s unlimited esteem for Umber. She slid an egg off the tray with a paw and said around a bite, “You could have just told me Raff was going to find Topaz.”

Rune coughed on his food and stared at her with big, guilty eyes. “What makes you think she did?”

“Oh, please, don’t give me that. I knew you two were up to something when she left. I thought maybe you were just taking a special interest in Raff’s well-being, but you’re way too relaxed about her being with a human. You knew all about it, didn’t you?”

Rune looked around and lowered his voice. He spoke over his egg like it would muffle what he said. “It was her idea in the first place. I expected her back before now.”

“So what went wrong? You must have an idea.” Heather gulped down the last of the egg and reached for another. They really had turned out exceptionally well.

“If something had happened to Topaz, she would have come home by now. I’m sure she’s with him.”

“So why wouldn’t they come home?”

Rune snorted. “Because Topaz will find out that Rafflesia and I were the only ones in on it and he’ll come up with some damn fool idea that no one wants him to come back. No one who counts, because your own brother apparently never does.”

Heather smirked. “I’m sensing this is an ongoing problem for you two?”

The tip of Rune’s tail twitched in annoyance. He did not, however, stop eating the eggs any more than Heather did. “I hoped he was over it. I hoped Rafflesia would convince him. If we don’t all greet him with hugs and dead mice, he thinks we don’t want him around.”

“So he has self-esteem issues,” Heather said and got a flat-eared glare from Rune. “Well, that’s what it is.”

“If you say so. Point is, I don’t think he’s going to come back without a royal invitation.”

Heather glanced back toward where Carlisle had left the room. “I think it’s the second-in-command he’s more concerned about.” She groomed her whiskers fitfully. “How am I going to get Carlisle to let him back?”

“That’s your department, not mine.”

Heather unfolded the plastic with her teeth and paws and tugged it over the platter. “Is there a rule that says every house must have at least one oddly surfer-styled, cheeky ginger tabby with an endearing inability to hold his liquor?” Heather jumped down from the counter and pawed open the back door. “Because that would be really helpful right now.”

“I hear he’s a good cat burglar. Need any locks picked?” Rune asked as he followed her out into the yard for their Saturday walk.

When George heard the click of heels across the floor, he just kept looking out the window. The hillside dropped off beyond the backyard and created the illusion of isolation. Mountains in the distance and open patches of cloudy sky were the only things to see. “You have a lovely view here,” he said, turning as he did. “Yvonne.”

Yvonne did not offer him a hand or an air kiss. She looked like a soldier at attention in her crisp suit and brass buttons. “Mr. Ellison. Is this a social call, or are they still making you work weekends?”

“Neither. I had a little private business to discuss with you.” He helped himself to a chair by the window, setting his cowboy hat in his lap. After a long pause, Yvonne sat across from him. “Are you familiar with Heather Lee?”

Yvonne’s expression revealed nothing. Botox and Aqua Net did wonders for her poker face. “She owns property within the Shadow Hills community.”

“You’ve met her?” George pressed.

“Of course.” Yvonne picked a stray thread from her skirt without seeming to take her eyes from him.

“Of course. I don’t know if you’ve seen the old place lately, but I think it’s gone to pot, don’t you?” She stared steadily at him, just waiting. “It doesn’t reflect well on Shadow Hills when something like that happens.”

“Since you are not a member of the Shadow Hills homeowners’ association, I fail to see the cause of your concern.” She waited a single, charge beat. “Well-meaning though it may be.”

“Things like that can get people thinking, maybe it’s time to move to greener pastures. Properties go up for sale, land starts opening up. It gets very attractive to men like, well, like myself.” He gestured the brim of his hat toward his chest.

“I was under the impression you preferred to establish housing developments of your own. And cut from a rather more, hm, efficient cloth than Shadow Hills. The parcels here can’t be broken down to less than ten acres.”

“Oh, certainly. And I’m all about quality. I certainly wouldn’t want to see Shadow Hills change. But my colleagues, say, the ones who specialize in strip malls, they would love to buy up every parcel here. And once you get something like that up here, more people lose interest and move on. More land ends up in the hands of–”

“Men like yourself?”

George smiled tightly. “Exactly. Well, to make a long story short, it seems to me, it would be in your best interest if someone more capable than Lee owned that place.”

Finally, Yvonne’s face showed a flicker of uncertainty. “Someone?”

George nodded as though admitting a somewhat embarrassing secret. “Like myself.”

“I see.”

“I don’t presume to know your business, but I would be surprised if the issue hasn’t already come up.” There. That hard, strained look at the corners of her eyes told him what he needed to know. “Just a little friendly, unsolicited advice. I know how important it is to you that Shadow Hills not turn into another housing track or shopping center.”

“I’ll certainly keep that in mind,” Yvonne said and stood.

George allowed her to direct him to the front door without protest. “You do that. It’s not often that someone comes along who wants to buy a place like that. Not these days.” He settled his hat on his head and tipped it to her. “You wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity to see it go to someone you can trust.”

Yvonne opened the door for him. Her glare said she trusted him as much as a rabbit trusted a fox. That was fine by him. He wanted her fear more than he would ever want her trust. He tipped his hat to her again. The door shut, but he felt her watching him from the window as he walked back to his car. Trust might get him a friend, but fear would get him everything else.

Carlisle took a stack of new blankets into one of the common rooms even as he felt the last of the day’s cat’s bane fading from his system. He probably knew as well as Heather did the signs of impending change and had certainly gone through it more often than she had. He too stood apart from the normal experience of being a changing cat. He smiled to the cats alternately bedding down and waking up for twilight as he swapped used blankets for fresh ones. Polite distance separated him from the rest of the House. He traded familiarity for responsibility when Poppy took him under her wing as a replacement for Heather.

Over in the corner, between the trunk of shared clothing and the window, he bent down to gather up one particular beach towel that had been left untouched for months. His fingers unconsciously curled into it, possessive and jealous. He shuffled it into the pile with the rest, but it did not end up in the laundry room when he finished. He hardly liked to even let it touch the other blankets for fear that they would contaminate it.

Back in his room, Carlisle spread the towel on his bed. Fastidious though he was, he did not pick off any of the stray hairs and he would never dream of washing it, even if it had kibble crumbs scattered on it. He shed his clothing just in time for the change, when the cat’s bane finally ran out and his body just gently turned itself inside out for a few seconds. If a full day of work did not leave him tired, changing certainly did. He did not so much jump onto the bed as climb paw over paw.

He hooked his claws in the terry cloth loops of the towel, slightly worn with age. He knew it on sight, but only when he changed could he smell the traces of Topaz that still lingered there even after so long. It was covered in his golden fur. Carlisle burrowed his face against it. He had resisted the urge to retrieve it after Topaz left. He felt betrayed and so much in the house fell on him — again — while Heather helped Rune recover. When heart-sick longing finally swallowed up the anger, there was no time to indulge it.

He used his claws to hook an edge and pull it around his body, cocooning himself in the familiar scent. But now Heather spent all her time with Rune, suddenly enthusiastic about the responsibilities of caring for the House. Even Dopple had Mysti, neither of whom had much desire to spend an afternoon discussing the newspapers Heather brought him when she went into town. And they all had other people with whom to climb trees or hunt grasshoppers.

The smell of Topaz grew stronger as Carlisle’s body heated the air in his cocoon and he started to drift to sleep. Change. Work. Change. Sleep. Change. His life took on unprecedented monotony and he had no one to blame but himself. He sent away his own grasshopper-hunting, tree-climbing, paper-reading partner and he did not know how to get him back.

The cats got used to bailing out of the front room whenever there was a knock at the door, so Heather did not have to tell them anything and they were gone by the time she reached the door.

On the other side, Yvonne waited and wrung her hands. “Hi, sweetie. May I please speak to you?” The polite request from someone who seemed to take it as her right to help herself to your time and space surprised Heather enough that she just stepped aside and let her in.

“We can sit in the kitchen and have something to drink, if you’d like,” she said in a clear voice intended to warn away the cats who had just relocated there. No small part of her also wished Rune would hear her and stay close by.

“The place looks nice,” Yvonne said as she hovered on the edge of the chair.

The day was just full of surprises. “I’ve been working hard on it.” She almost amended that to “we” when Rune slipped into the kitchen to hover behind her chair.

“You should paint the exterior. A fresh coat of paint would really liven the place up.” Yvonne accepted the glass of iced tea Heather offered her. “No lemonade this time?”

Heather smiled weakly. Yvonne’s new demeanor should have put her at ease, but instead she found herself bracing for the inevitable jibe that had to follow. “Was there something you needed to talk about?”

Yvonne stared into her glass and stroked lines through the beads of water on the sides. At last, she said, “You need to get this place fixed up. And I know I’ve told you that before,” she continued in a rush, “and I suppose I might have been a bit harsh about it.”

Heather gave a breathless chuckle and glanced over at Rune to see what he thought. “A little harsh?” Yvonne winced at the tone of disbelief. “You implied that I could not be expected to successfully wipe my own nose.” Rune watched in silence. Couldn’t he at least say something? It would not mean anything to Yvonne.

Yvonne nodded and kept her eyes down. “I should not have been so rude. But I’m trying to make up for it.”

“And how are you doing that?”

“By warning you.” The ‘duh’ at the end was almost audible. “You need to make this place impeccable. So people can see that you are a responsible owner for the place.”

“He’s gotten to you,” Heather said and it stared her in the face, the obvious fact that George Ellison would do more than just make idle threats.

Yvonne nodded and finally looked Heather in the eye. “I couldn’t bear it if he or one of his buddies tore this place up and turned it into a movie theater and a boutique.”

“He can’t have the house. He just can’t.” Heather thought she sounded pretty confident, which was reassuring. She did not really feel confident. Rune trotted out of the kitchen again. What, this was old news, so he had better things to do?

“He won’t stop trying. He will get something you care about and hold a knife to its throat until he gets what he wants.” Yvonne looked out the window wistfully, as though she loved the house as her own. Heather hoped she did not notice any cats out there.

The image her words brought up made Heather’s stomach turn to ice. Because she could think of all the very real, very much alive things she cared about that he could threaten. “So he sent you here to back up his threats.”

Yvonne shook her head frantically. “He sent me here to get you to sell. To tell you the association didn’t want you here or to make you think you couldn’t handle the house.”

“Jeez, you were doing that before he came along. I’m afraid of what you would be like when you try to drive me away.”

Yvonne pushed her chair back. “I told you I was sorry.” Heather did not remember her saying any such thing, but she supposed Yvonne considered her actions as good as an apology. “Please, don’t underestimate him. Whether he gets this property or another one, know that you won’t be the only one to suffer. I’ll show myself out.”

Heather hoped the cats got out of the way for Yvonne. She didn’t know what to make of the conversation. Yvonne hadn’t told her anything she didn’t already know. Including just how far the damage would spread if Ellison put his mind to it. She knew better than Yvonne could imagine just how many people would be unhappy. Or worse.

Even on the weekend, George recognized half the people who filled the bar as ones who worked in his offices. It was not a bar to take a date or a client. It was a bar to get thrashed with coworkers because you had lost the client and couldn’t get a date. It matched George’s mood better than he would have liked as he hunched over his scotch like a junkyard dog with a bone. After last night, even Susanna had left him in peace, making no mention of going out over the weekend when she left his house. He scattered a handful of peanuts onto a cocktail napkin and crushed the shell of one between thumb and forefinger.

The mirror behind the bar gave him a view of the rest of the room without turning. There was James something or other, who worked with Hill over in PR. He chatted up a woman George did not know, but who seemed to be cut from the same cloth as his own secretary and who could very well have brought him faxes and coffee on any given day. He thought a few people were from accounting, but he could not be sure. The peanut shell crumbled into fibers and salty dust under his fingers. While he watched, someone — he knew her from somewhere, didn’t he? — stared back at him in the mirror. She ducked to say something into the ear of her nearest companion, whose eyes flicked up to him and darted away again. George looked away when they laughed, heads bowed together.

He took a gulp of his drink. These peons probably didn’t know him from Adam, never mind that he was president of the goddamn board and had been in this line since they were picking their noses in grade school. The alcohol welled up behind his eyes and he crunch peanuts in the palm of his hand to drive away the wave of maudlin stupidity. The board would never vote him out, he told himself. It was just office politics rearing its ugly head. Well, he had better things to do than kowtow to that lot.

He swallowed the last of his scotch and tucked a couple of bills under the glass. The laughing girl did not look at him as he left the bar. Outside, the buildings obscured the setting sun so that all he could see above their tops was blue sky gone white at one edge and purple at the other. It would all blow over, he told himself again. They could say what they wanted about leadership and profits and new directions. It was his company. Nothing would change that.

Rune trotted up the spiral staircase. A huge clang shook the close quarters and he winced and pawed at his ringing ears. On the landing, Heather heaved another shattered chunk of masonry into a metal wheelbarrow. Rune skirted around it and sat on a pile of bricks. “Why is there a wheelbarrow in the house?”

“I couldn’t think of a better way to do this,” Heather said. She did not stop working and she did not look at him. The clangs turned to thuds as the wheelbarrow slowly filled. Heather wiped her arm across her forehead even as sweat continued to drip from the end of her nose.

“Why not wait until I can help you? This is a two person job.” To him, the small space radiated pleasant warmth, perfect for a cat nap.

Heather pulled more bricks from the pile blocking what remained of the doorway onto the tower’s walkway. They tumbled down in an avalanche and she jumped back to avoid getting her toes crushed. “I can do this alone. It doesn’t take any special knowledge to haul bricks away.”

“You’re going to have trouble getting it down the stairs again if you fill it much more,” Rune said after a minute.

“Why don’t you go see if someone else needs help? I’m fine here.”

Rune rubbed up against her leg. “You’re upset. Is this about what that woman said?”

Heather sidestepped him. He had to back off to avoid the next cascade of bricks she brought down without warning. “No. Yes. I don’t know,” she said impatiently.

“Maybe you should take a break for a while. You’re probably just tired.”

“I’m not tired,” Heather snapped. “And I should have done this months ago, especially after Elly got lost up here. It’s dangerous. It can’t wait just because you have the wrong body today.”

Rune sat down heavily. “Is that what this is about?” He batted at her leg when she didn’t answer. “Are you mad at me because I’m not human all the time?”

Heather passed a hunk of brick from hand to hand while staring at the half-dismantled wall. “I’m mad that you aren’t human when I need you to be.”

“I told you this could wait for a while. Elly was a fluke. No one’s going to go up here.”

“It’s not about this,” Heather said and flung the brick into the pile. It set off another little tumble. “It would have been really nice to have some backup when Yvonne showed up.”

“Like when Ellison did?” Because really, Yvonne was nothing compared to that son of a dog.

“I need more than what you can give me with two days out of every month.” Heather still stared at the wall, like she could not look at him and speak her mind at the same time. He knew that feeling. Her hands hovered in front of her with nothing to hold, covered in red dust. “I wouldn’t ask you to be human all the time.” She chuckled and wiped at her face again, but he did not think it was sweat she rubbed from her eyes. “Guess that was a once in a lifetime thing, huh?”

They were not going to have a conversation about his old life. “You’re not being fair. I’m doing the best I can.” She had him doing more than he had been able to do in years. He had walked halfway down to the road with her the other day to get the mail, for heaven’s sake.

“I’m sorry. It’s not enough.” She shrugged. “I can’t schedule my whole life around the Leo moon. Not for you, not for anyone. Things come up all the time. I have to know you can be there.” She turned quickly and picked up the handles of the wheelbarrow. Her progress down the stairs was slow and torturous, but Rune did not attempt to catch up to her.

George stood up from the table, hands planted on the reflective surface with a loud slap. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, I guess that settles that.” Half of the board of directors looked uncomfortable and the other half looked defiant. He plucked a stale Danish from the plate in the middle and gave the whole table a cocky grin. “It’s no skin off my nose. I think I’ll leave you to your business. Good luck picking the new guy.” No one said a word as he left the board room with a swagger and a mouthful of pastry.

He circled through the hallways with his head up. Out there, no one noticed anything different. The same meaningless faces greeted him, people he never needed to bother remembering. He positively strolled into his office. Behind her desk, the secretary visibly relaxed, smiling at him with the phone pressed between her ear and shoulder, taking his good mood as an equally good sign. He slashed a finger in front of his throat to tell her to hold all his calls and locked himself in his office.

He dropped the pastry in the trash and sank into his chair. He opened his cell phone. When Susanna answered, he said, “We’re going out tonight. Somewhere nice. Dress accordingly.”

“Does this mean the meeting went well? You’re still president?”

“Who the hell else could they get to put up with this crap? Of course I am. I’ll pick you up at six.”

He picked up the sign on the edge of his desk proclaiming George Ellison the President, Board of Directors. He threw it at the door hard enough to leave a nick in the wood after it clattered, chipped, to the floor. It would need replacing anyway, when he handed in his inevitable letter of resignation as president. Next, he opened his filing cabinet. Slowly and systematically, he flung folder after folder across the room. They flapped and landed on the floor. He wrenched the clips from contracts and released them in a downpour. He stood in a storm of paper and hurled bolts of rolled blue prints. When the cabinet was empty, he gently slid each drawer shut.

He swept papers from his chair and sat down again. Then he took out a little notebook and a pen. He flipped to a page of lists, where one entry was circled. He circled it again. He let the pen run around it, circle after circle, each one more erratic, until you could hardly tell that the name Lee had been there at all. The pen tore though the first sheet of paper and turned the name into a paper cut-out covered in black ink. It popped free. Without removing it, George snapped the notebook shut.

The secretary was off the phone when he walked out again. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Clean up the paperwork in there and file everything.” He grabbed his jacket from a hook by the door. “I’m done for the day.” I’m just getting started, he countered in his head.

Previous Episode :: Back to Index :: Next Episode

HoC Ep. 15: Second Place

Carlisle dug his hind claws into the tree trunk and shoved himself up another foot. The pull in the tendons of his front paws felt wonderful after a busy week spent cooped up inside. His spine stretched and bunched as he propelled himself up to the first branch. He stopped there to twist and roll the kinks out of his shoulders. With Heather on her Saturday break from the cat’s bane, the office was probably off-limits anyway. Below him, a gopher inched out of its tunnel, took a look around, and disappeared again. Carlisle stretched out on the branch to watch it.

Behind him, he heard a soft voice speaking. The gopher bit off a sprig of a weed close to the tunnel entrance and ducked away. The voice moved closer and Carlisle looked back toward the house to see who had come to interrupt his holiday. Heather wove between clumps of grass with her tail high over her back. Next to her, Rune listened in silence as she chatted away.

While they were still far enough away, Carlisle bolted higher into the tree. He picked a spot where the branches were close together and the pine needles would hide him somewhat. Heather and Rune slipped into the shadows of the trees. Perhaps the office was available after all, Carlisle thought bitterly. She had ordered Carlisle out the last time he tried to talk to her while she was a cat. Her tail brushed Rune’s as they walked together.

“I think we should paint the house next,” she said. “The weather is supposed to be good for a while. And it’s not too hot yet.”

Rune kept his head turned towards her. Carlisle had no doubts that he only ventured this far from the house because Heather distracted him from his fears. Rune ducked his head in agreement. “Sure. Some of the older kittens might like to help.”

Heather stopped right below Carlisle’s tree to watch the gopher as it ate a bare patch in the grass around its home. “Good idea,” she said quietly, eyes fixed on the tunnel entrance and the quivering whiskers that cleared its mouth now and then.

Rune watched her with the same intense focus. “Should I leave you two alone?”

Heather looked up. Carlisle could see even from fifteen feet above her the way her eyes widened when Rune spoke to her, how her whole body tuned in to him when he was near. “Sorry. Got distracted. Do you want to go farther or head back?”

Rune tipped his head side to side, debating. “I can go a bit farther,” he said at last.

“I left tuna salad on the counter for us this morning,” Heather said as they set off again. “I put an ice pack with it to keep it fresh. And its covered, so hopefully no one will decide to steal it this time.”

“Did you leave a note?”

“One on each side, just to be certain.”

Carlisle let their voices fade from his mind as they walked away. Heather fixed food for him all the time when he worked longer than she thought appropriate. It was hardly something to feel jealous about, he told himself. He scrambled down from the tree. Maybe he could read letters in the garden today, if it was not too noisy with cats enjoying the sunshine. His solitary holiday just did not seem like much fun any longer.

Carlisle waited at the bottom of the hill by the mailbox for Dopple to return from town. He tugged at the ratty t-shirt fitfully. He wondered what it would be like to see her after twenty-five years. He tried to think of her as the Queen, her mother’s daughter. But in his mind, she was Heather, a teenager forever.

A taxi pulled into the driveway. Dopple slid out of the backseat. She looked him over once the car disappeared around the bend. “You look like hell,” she said. Her own leather jacket was slick black.

Carlisle grimaced and tried to pull the shoulders straight on the shirt. He would have given anything to wear his own clothes. “I had to wear something I could afford to leave behind when I change again.”

“He didn’t see you leave, did he?” Dopple reflexively looked up the hill toward the house.

“I saw him go upstairs around noon. I hope you’re right about him staying up there.”

“He won’t come down while everyone is changed,” Dopple said. “I have directions for you.” She held out a scrap of paper. Her handwriting wobbled across it.

“How far is it?”

“Two weeks, unless you hitchhike while you’re human.”

“I’ve no money to offer and I’d rather not take the chance of changing around a human.” Carlisle looked down the road and tried to get his heart to stop beating so hard.

He saw Dopple cock her head out of the corner of his eye. “You sure are a mess over this girl of yours. And I thought you and Topaz had something going on.”

Carlisle coughed. He was certainly too old to be of any interest to Topaz, who had every queen in the place following him around and several of the toms as well. “I just want to find her as soon as possible.”

“What’s her name?” Dopple asked. Something in her voice made Carlisle wonder if she suspected his deception.

“Crimea,” he said. The lie came easily, though he almost ruined it by laughing at the idea that he had been involved with Crimea. His younger self wished it so, but he had sense enough now to know a pointless crush when he saw one.

Dopple shrugged and turned up the road. “I’ll make excuses for you to Rune if he notices you’re gone.”

“That would be very helpful,” Carlisle murmured, but Dopple just trudged on.

He read her directions again and again while he walked. It was essential that he memorize them. In two days, he would be a cat once again and he would have no choice but to work from memory.

He chuckled a little. If Dopple spread his story around the House, he would certainly come home to an interesting reputation. Ex-girlfriend, indeed. He hoped no one mentioned it to Heather when they got back. She always hated it when people gossiped about them. At least, she used to. He wondered if that had changed in the years of their separation. He wondered what else might have as well.

Carlisle opened the door warily. Dopple was not due back so soon. Poppy was not expecting any visitors today. He squinted at the young man on the doorstep. He had a long scrape on his cheek and his clothes were filthy. He rather looked like he had been run over by a truck. “Rune?”

His posture relaxed a bit. “Hey, is Poppy around?” When Carlisle stepped aside to let him in, he walked with a terrible limp.

“What happened to you?” Carlisle steadied him with a hand on his arm.

“Got in a bar fight. You should see the other guys.” Rune’s grin was shaky and made pathetic by the slight swelling at the corner of his mouth.

Carlisle snorted. “Ridiculous. Were you too drunk to find your way home? Last time you wrote, you were in Nevada. What are you doing here?”

“This is my home,” Rune said. He clamped a hand on Carlisle’s wrist. “This is my home,” he repeated.

“I wasn’t going to send you packing,” Carlisle said. He patted Rune’s shoulder with his free hand. “There’s an open room down the hall. Come on.” He pulled Rune’s arm over his shoulder and helped him walk.

Carlisle looked up when he heard the thump of Poppy’s cane on the wood floor.  She looked past Rune as though she expected to see someone else with him. There was a smudge of flour in her hair, white on white, and she smelled of vanilla. When Rune looked up at her, she clicked her tongue against her teeth. “You always have to pick a fight, don’t you?”

He ducked his head. “Yes, ma’am. I waited until I got back though.”

“Very wise of you, minimizing how far you had to walk on that leg,” she said and poked it, carefully, with the tip of her cane. He winced. She sighed and handed the cane to him. “You need this more than I do. Tell me what happened.”

She stood at Rune’s side so that Carlisle had no choice but to move out of her way. “Ma’am, I can get him set up. Please don’t trouble yourself,” Carlisle said.

“That won’t be necessary,” Poppy said without looking back. “Rune and I have private matters to discuss.”

Carlisle watched them hobble down the hall to the room he had in mind for Rune. They closed the door. Well. That was fine. There was plenty of work Carlisle could get done, since they did not need him. He went upstairs to Poppy’s office in search of letters to answer or bills to pay. He did not know Rune all that well anyway. He was just being nosy. Better to mind his own business.

Carlisle slit his eyes against the hot light coming through the window. He could hear Vince gathering up a crowd of hunters for a trip into the woods. He wished there was a door he could slam here in the front room. Vince had asked him along, but he had better things to do than hang out with that rabble. Scarborough would never hang out with that lot. They had never even been out of this town. Boring.

Someone stroked the top of his head. Dreaming of Heather again. Wherever she was. The stroke turned into a tap between his ears. “Wakey wakey,” Poppy said. She knelt by the windowsill he occupied. “Would you be willing to help me with something?”

Carlisle stretched and stood up. “Like what?”

Poppy offered him something leafy on her open palm. “Eat this, then get dressed and come to my office.”

Carlisle shrugged and ate the cat’s bane. He fell off the windowsill when he changed, but no one was around to see, so he brushed imaginary dust off his knees and went upstairs to find some clothing. Dressed in jeans and a sweater, pleasantly warm but tragically lame looking, he entered Poppy’s office without knocking.

She gestured him into a seat on the opposite side of her desk. “Why aren’t you out with the others today?”

Carlisle looked away. “Didn’t feel like it.”

“We’ll find her eventually,” Poppy said.

“Whatever,” Carlisle said and knew it was a small and lonely word compared to the store of curses and pleas for Heather he kept inside. “What did you need me to do?”

Poppy pushed a stack of envelopes towards him. “Do you know what these are?” He shook his head. “I receive a great many letters from cats around the country.” She tapped a finger against the stack. “They tell me who has died and who has had kittens. Where they are and if they will be near our House in the future.”

Carlisle picked up an envelope and, when she did not stop him, unfolded the letter inside. It was several pages of stiff paper, written in an erratic hand. “Long,” he said.

“Yes. And I have many other things I need to take care of today. Do you think you could help me with these?” She set a pad of paper and a pen next to the letters. It had been divided into columns, labeled with things like “clan name” and “number of births (include pedigree)” and “current residence.”

“Sounds deadly dull,” Carlisle said, but his eyes kept slipping back to the letter in his hand, curious about what it might say.

“It would be very helpful to me,” Poppy said gently. “Heather was supposed to help me with these,” she added after a hesitation.

Carlisle scooted his chair up to the desk and picked up the pen. “Maybe just this once. ‘Cause I got nothing better to do.” He as much as he wanted to see Heather again, he wanted to prove he was better than she was as well. She left him behind and he didn’t think he would ever forgive her.

“You have nothing better to do,” Poppy corrected him.

He raised his eyebrows, which was his favorite expression from Scarborough. “I said that.”

“How you speak with your friends is your own business, but I expect you to speak properly when you are working,” Poppy said with a mild smile. He would not know it for a few months, but he would need to brush up on his language for when he started writing letters as well as reading them. By then, he had forgotten he was just Poppy’s second choice after Heather left.

Carlisle picked at the plastic bracelet they had snapped on him when he walked in with the rest of the dout. “Why do I have to wear this?”

“So they know not to serve you alcohol,” Crimea said. She wore a spiked collar. Carlisle had never met anyone as hopelessly cool, except Scarborough, their leader. “Human bars aren’t allowed unless you’re old enough.” Everyone in the dout spoke her dialect. Learning that fact made it harder to imagine Crimea had any special interest in him, almost as much as when he found out she and Scarborough went together. His crush had not abated, nonetheless.

Scarborough roughed Carlisle’s hair up so the short curls stood on end. “And you look about twelve, kid.”

Carlisle shook his hand off. “Why come to a human bar at all?”

Crimea smirked and rolled her eyes. Carlisle felt his face flush up to his ears. “If I didn’t know you were so smart, I would think you were pretty dumb. Have you met any cats running bars?”

Brig practically bounced in his chair. “Oh, oh, I have,” he said in his usual explosion of noise. “In Louisiana, there’s this–”

“Rhetorical question, Brig,” Scarborough said. “We’re here to meet another dout.”

A big man clapped a hand on Scarborough’s shoulder. “Present and accounted for.”

Scarborough stood and they exchanged friendly thumps to the back. “John. Thought we’d have to send out a search party.”

The man pulled a chair up to their table and sat by Scarborough. Two women slipped into the circle as well, their chairs pulled up so close to each other they were almost sitting in each other’s laps. They were tiny, positively dwarfed next to John, and perfect twins, down to their oddly short arms and legs.

Scarborough flung an arm around Carlisle, who peered at the newcomers from around his leader’s side. “This is our newest member, Carlisle. This is John, Naomi and Natasha. Border Crossing Dout.”

Carlisle waved awkwardly. John grinned, all teeth. “You robbing dens now? Or was he born with you?”

“Nope, picked him up at Poppy’s House. Kid knows his stuff. He’ll really be something in a couple years.”

“Were you up at Poppy’s when her kid bailed?” John asked. Carlisle wrapped both his hands around his glass of water and brought it to his lips, the ice trembling inside. Scarborough shook his head and John said, “Happened a couple months ago.” The bar seemed quiet, all the background noise dropping away.

Before he could say anything more, one of the twins, Natasha maybe, interrupted. “Word has it, she ran away.” “And no one has been able to find her,” Naomi added. “She stole all the cat’s bane at the House,” Natasha said. Naomi leaned forward to say in a scandalized voice, “Rumor has it, she’s gone full-time furless.”

Carlisle did not have to ask to know what that meant. Heather had made good on her threats. In some human city, dressed up as one of them, Heather had disappeared. Carlisle did not realize he had stood up until Crimea pulled him back down into his seat. “I have to go back,” he said.

“Now, hang on,” Crimea said. “She’s not your problem. Poppy will take care of it.”

Carlisle shook his head. “You don’t understand. Heather is– We were– I might be able to bring her home.”

“We’re at least four weeks hard travel from the House,” Scarborough said. “The trail will be cold long before you get back, even if you leave now. And we won’t be headed back there for another year, at least.”

The noise in the bar crashed back to full volume. Carlisle hovered on the edge of his seat. “I know her. I can find her.”

“You can’t go alone,” Scarborough said.

“I’ll go,” Brig said, waving his hands and pointing to himself.

Crimea smacked him on the back of the head. “You’re worse than no one at all.”

“Listen, I’m headed west myself,” John said. He turned his big palm up on the table. “We can take him most of the way, if it’s that important.”

“We didn’t know you knew her,” Natasha said. Naomi said, “We’re sorry.”

Scarborough leaned back in his chair and took a swig of his beer. “You won’t be able to connect up with us again until we come to the House again.” He raised an eyebrow. “You know we don’t follow a plan.”

“I have to go,” Carlisle said helplessly. He had to get Heather back. That was all there was to it. He saw the Blue Road dout the next time they happened his way, but he never did roam with them again. Some things, he told himself, just aren’t meant to be.

Carlisle licked a swath between Heather’s ears, grooming the fur against the grain, and then smoothed it again with short strokes. She purred, the vibration transferring from her back to his side where she curled. But her purring stopped as soon as he stopped washing her. “What’s wrong?”

Heather flopped over so they faced each other, all four paws touching. “I want to try something,” she said and looked away.

Carlisle liked trying new things with Heather. She never made fun of him, even when she laughed at him. Heather was his favorite cat in the whole world. The answer was always the same: he wanted to do whatever she wanted.

She stayed silent and stared past him. When her eyes met his, her pupils were dilated so large they eclipsed the blue in a black with more depth than should have been possible in her small, fine-boned face. She leaned forward until her nose touched his. “Like humans,” she said. The tip of her tongue touched his upper lip. “I want to kiss like humans.”

Carlisle copied what she did, but went no further. Heather had never proposed something like that before. She pressed her mouth next to his. Her whiskers tickled his nose. She licked again and the ticklish rasp of her tongue made him jerk away. “Sorry. Whiskers,” he said and rubbed a paw against them to relieve the tingly feeling at the sensitive base of each one.

Heather looked away again, obviously disappointed. “It looked like more fun than that,” she said.

Carlisle hooked a paw over her shoulder and rolled her back to curl beside him again. “We can try it the next time we change.” Carlisle always felt ridiculous, all oversized hands and feet and skinny legs, compared to Heather as a human, who already looked like a woman.

Heather rested her chin on his paws. “When I run away,” she said and the list of things that followed that statement was longer than Carlisle could easily remember. “You have to come with me.”

“Yes,” Carlisle said. Whatever Heather wanted. “We’ll travel the world, just like my mum does.”

“Tell me about England again,” Heather said. She always liked to hear about Carlisle’s fragmented memories of his homes before his mother left him at the House.

Outside their nook, someone said, “hey, the Blue Roads are here,” in a voice loud enough to summon every cat in the house. Carlisle slipped out from under Heather’s weight. “Let’s go see who’s here.”

Heather sighed and followed him. He knew she hated meeting new cats, but Carlisle was curious. In the solarium, a whole crowd of cats surrounded the newcomers. They all talked rapidly, exchanging bursts of information in a flurry of sound. Lost in the back of the crowd, Carlisle saw the prettiest cat — next to Heather — he had ever seen, sitting by herself.

He looked back as he crossed the room. Heather sat in the doorway, watching with a wary expression. Carlisle went over to the forgotten cat and said hello.

She grumbled under her breath and chirped a greeting back. It was a different dialect, which explained why she was not part of the larger conversation. She had a highly domed forehead, aristocratic and exotic, and the blue of her coat made even Carlisle’s rosettes look like simple gray.

“You’re a Russian Blue then, aren’t you?” He asked in her dialect.

“You speak,” she confirmed with a smile. “I’m Crimea. No one in this territory speaks.”

“I speak three dialects. And human English,” Carlisle said.

Crimea tipped her nose toward the door and Heather. “Your friend speaks too?”

Heather’s fur puffed and she disappeared from the doorway. “Ah, no,” Carlisle said. He would have gone after her, but just then Crimea swiped at another cat. When she had his attention, she introduced them and it was hours before Carlisle could get away long enough to tell Heather, coolly disinterested, all about the Blue Roads and how they wanted him to join them.

Heather told him not to follow her around but what she didn’t know, Carlisle thought as he nosed aside a loose board in the garden fence, couldn’t hurt him. He squeezed through the opening, getting the tip of his tail pinched for his efforts, and walked through the leafy corridor under the branches of a flowering bush. The junk heap, where kittens’ voices could be heard, was in the back corner. Carlisle was tired — Heather had walked a long way before stopping at this rundown house — and he flopped down in the prickly grass as soon as he found an opening big enough to see through.

Heather played with the other kittens. They were a little younger than she was and a little older than Carlisle. There were five of them, all different colors and coats. Heather explained to them in a tone of great authority that food always tasted better cooked. The kittens expressed vociferous disbelief. Carlisle watched the way Heather’s eyes flashed in the dim light.

“Mommy always cooks all my food,” Heather said.

“Cats can’t cook,” one of the kittens insisted.

“We can when we’re human,” Heather explained with a roll of her eyes. Carlisle sat up, a bad feeling itching under fur. Mum always told him not to talk to strange cats. There were the right kinds of cats and the wrong kinds, she told him. In the shade of an overturned bathtub and a rusted bicycle, Heather described cooking in elaborate detail.

Carlisle backed away. If he told Heather to come home, she would get mad at him for following her. She would pull his ears and refuse to talk to him for the rest of the day if she got really mad. Carlisle slunk back out of the garden. Outside, he broke to a run. Heather’s mum would help.

When he got home, he did not even have to explain to Poppy. She met him at the front door. “Where is Heather?”

Walking the path there and back made it easy to remember. Carlisle always remembered where he had been. Explaining to Poppy just which lumpy rock he had turned left at proved harder. In the end, she carried him in her arms while she ran, flat human feet pounding the ground.

Poppy broke the latch on the garden gate to get in. The noise distracted the kittens’ mother, which meant she loosened her death grip on Heather’s neck. Poppy grabbed the cat by her neck in turn and flung her across the yard. She landed in a flower pot with a yowl.

Heather refused to even look at Carlisle while Poppy carried them home. “You must never, ever go near them again,” she said. “Cats that don’t change will hurt you if you let them.”

“You’re the right kind of cat,” Carlisle said helpfully, “and they’re the wrong kind.”

Heather twisted away and buried her face in Poppy’s arm. He heard her say in a sniffle, “I’m not a cat at all.”

Poppy stopped walking. “Don’t say that. You are a perfectly good cat.”

Heather looked up at her mother. Carlisle could see bite marks, red and puffy, behind her ears. “She said I’m just like a human.”

Poppy bundled Heather closer to her chest. “They don’t know what they’re talking about,” she said. “Just forget all about it.”

It took three months for Heather to forget about Carlisle tattling on her and start talking to him again. She never did forget what the cat told her that day though.

Previous Episode :: Back to Index :: Next Episode

HoC Ep. 14: One Morning

If George Ellison heard one more advertisement about how the housing market was turning around, he would kill something. If it was doing so much better, why couldn’t he afford to hire a private investigator to skulk around in bushes in the middle of the night for him? Instead, George panted and pushed his hands against his thighs to propel himself up the steep hill to the house. Why would anyone want to live this far off the beaten path?

He ducked into the trees that lined the property as he reached the summit of the hill. There were lights on in the house even at almost two in the morning. Wild party? He could use that if he talked to the homeowner’s association. But there was no music. In fact, the house seemed deathly quiet. It was waiting for something.

He crept out, knees aching with the effort to stay crouched close to the ground. The closest window was dark but he looked in all the same. His eyes had adjusted to the dark on his trek up the hill, but he still could not quite make out the shapes he saw in the room. He squinted until his eyes and temples throbbed. The things moved. George moved lower so his eyes barely cleared the ledge of the window. Something bright flashed orange and green in one of the dark shapes. Then it disappeared as the shape moved away from the window.

George moved on tiptoes, feeling out each step before he took it, wary of sticks and dry leaves that would give him away. Around the corner of the house, he found a bright patch of ground from an illuminated window. This time he stood beside the window and leaned in, inch by agonizing inch, to see through it.

Cats. Maybe six of the furry bastards. That’s what he had seen before — cat’s eyes shining in the low light. Between the two rooms, there were at least a dozen, maybe more. Who needed that many cats? A little thrill of satisfaction went through him. Maybe she was a hoarder. He could easily parlay that into losing her house.

He crouched down, ready to move on to another window, but a sound made him look once more. A cat looked like it needed to hack up a hairball. It stretched out on the floor and writhed a little. Then another cat did the same thing. One by one, they all lay down in what started to look like death throes. His mind rushed through possibilities. Rabies? Poison? Distemper?

Then things turned weird. His mind could not quite follow what happened, registering just a few isolated moments: fur falling off a cat in flurries; a leg and paw stretching to impossible lengths; a mouth full of fangs opening around a human laugh. He blinked and a room full of cats became a room full of people.

Each one naked as the day they were born, they sat up and started talking in a language he had never heard. They rubbed their eyes and scratched and stretched. Some of them walked out, some of them moved from the floor to furniture, and some of them stayed sprawled on the floor. English words started to filter into the foreign babble.

George Ellison moved away from the window. Whatever the hell he just saw, it made hoarding cats look like a harmless hobby. It would take a lot more work, but he would find a way to use this as leverage.

Age had robbed the old cat of her teeth and she lisped her words. “It won’t be long now.”

Heather pulled her sweater tighter to ward off the chill of more than just early morning. She too could feel the moon changing, tuning into it like flicking one ear to listen to a distant sound. “Can I do anything for you, Sarna?”

The ancient queen curled and stretched, trying to get comfortable on the heating pad under her blanket. Her legs shook with even that tiny effort. Fragile skin showed through her thin fur. But her eyes, though barely open, were still clear. “Water, please. Just a little.”

Heather tipped a spoonful of water into the cat’s mouth and set the mug aside again. “Carlisle sent word to your sons, like you asked. Are you sure…”

“That I’m dying?” Sarna asked with a wheezing chuckle. Heather knew the only answer was yes. But she was young and hopeful and it seemed impossible to just know your time was up. To announce your death before it had come. Sarna set a paw over Heather’s nearby hand. “I can’t survive the change this time.”

Heather stroked her thumb across Sarna’s paw. “Your friends will be back as soon as they finish changing.” No one wanted to disturb Sarna, so Heather, the only one who would not be changing that night, had watched her for the hour around the moon change.

“I’m not afraid,” Sarna said. “I’m in my home. I had my fair share of good kittens. I had my nine lives.” She rested, her breathing shallow. For a moment she seemed to sleep, but without opening her eyes, she said, “I danced on Broadway as a young woman. Not that you’d know it to look at me now.”

“Not in Cats, by any chance?” Heather asked with a wry smile. Laugh so you don’t have to cry, she told herself.

“No, I was before it’s time. I was in Oliver! though.”

Heather smiled. She wondered what Mother had said when she died. What had she remembered as the highlight of her life? Would she have sent word to Heather if she knew where her prodigal daughter lived?

When the change came, Heather felt it as a little twinge in her body as it started to change before realizing it already had. Under her hand, Sarna took a sharp breath and her heart beat harder and louder than should have been possible. The change took energy and strength she did not have. It did not even start.

Heather waited, hand on Sarna’s side, until she was certain there was no breath and no heartbeat to be felt. She folded the blanket around the body, covering Sarna’s face last, and switched off the heating pad. Eventually, the others came back and relieved Heather. In the time between, though, she tried to think of something to say, knowing that Sarna would not hear it anymore than Mother would, but longing for some sentiment that would give her closure. In the end, she had to settle for just staying by her side. It was still more than she had given Mother.

Rune relished the burn of fatigue in his arms and shoulders as he counted push-ups under his breath. The change woke him every time and left him sleepless, even though he had been adjusting to Heather’s daytime routine. His muscles ached anyway from raking leaves and fixing the porch and falling out of a tree while trimming it. He had a fantastic bruise on his right shoulder from that last one.

He let himself collapse to the carpet and roll onto his back. Heather probably slept soundly at that moment. She would want to get back to work once real morning came. Rune stumbled into the bathroom. Splashing water on his face made it easier to avoid looking at himself. His strength returned, coaxed along as a cat and as a human, but his face did not change. He buried his face in a towel as he walked out of the room and tossed it behind himself, mirror successfully avoided.

Clean and dressed, he padded barefoot down the hall to the kitchen. Foraging for breakfast yielded leftovers thoughtfully packaged and labeled by Heather. He chewed a hunk of cold chicken at the table and watched the sky lighten like a gas flame turned higher and higher, blue to orange to white. It was just a sliver of sky directly over the hills. The rest held on to night.

In moments like this, Rune longed for the comforts of human life. A television did wonders for drowning out self-doubt, even if it did nothing to encourage sleep. Instead, he folded his arms on the table and refused to think about what it meant that he scheduled his life around Heather now. Or what would happen if — when — she decided he made a better handyman than husband. Heaven knew, he made no kind of husband.

Rune walked to the sliding doors, entertaining thoughts of walking outside, in time to see the coyote make a dash for the house. Rune threw the door open before he saw the cat in its path. Time seemed to compress then, as all three animals tried to adjust to the new information. Rune moved to intercept. The cat wheeled for the open door. The coyote swerved to follow even as it dodged Rune.

The coyote had speed over the other two and snapped, yellow-toothed, at the retreating cat. Had it not attempted to avoid Rune, which it only registered as big and human, it might have captured more than a tail. As it was, the cat spun, screaming amid the hisses, and dug little claws into the coyote’s eyes. The next snap immobilized one paw and would have been the cat’s doom, but Rune, forgotten in the momentary fight, half tackled and half fell into the coyote.

Cowardice won over hunger and the coyote retreated, rubbing its bloodied eyes every few steps. Huddled over the cat, Rune saw it stop just inside the trees, watching and waiting and hoping, and he roared at it, a noise of fury beyond species. Below him, the grass bent under a dew of blood from the shredded tail and crushed paw. The cat moaned, too hurt to speak or clean the wounds.

Rune bundled the cat into the kitchen. “Easy, easy. You’re going to be okay.” Blood loss was the first problem, Rune thought as he pressed one dish towel around the tail and another around the paw. Heather could get antibiotics for infection later. Such a small cat, he thought. He tried to soothe it long enough to let him call for help. Just a kid, not old enough to change yet. “Stay put and I’ll get Heather. Heather will make it better.”

Heather shook a pill out of a bottle. “Swallow this. It’s for the pain.”

The young cat stopped tugging at the bandage on his foot long enough to gulp the pill down. “How long do I have to wear this?”

“Until your foot doesn’t look like it got put through a meat grinder, stupid,” Heather snapped. He made Rune look like an ideal patient. “The same goes for your tail. And you get antibiotics twice a day from me or your mother. No arguments.”

Rune helped him down from the counter to the floor. As he limped away, Rune said, “He’s awfully calm about the whole thing.”

“He’s young and indestructible, remember? And he could have taken that coyote by himself, easy.” Heather snorted. Young and foolish was more like it.

Heather packaged up the medical supplies, restocked by the vet during Rune’s detox, and Rune scrubbed down the kitchen counters, which had been press ganged into serving as an operating room. Heather looked up from washing her hands when Dorian came barging through with another cat and Valoria hot on his heels.

“She’s one of our best hunters,” he said in a tone that brooked no argument.

Valoria was having none of it. “It’s a fool’s errand anyway. That coyote is long gone and I need her help.”

The cat in question took a knife from the butcher’s block on the counter. “This is more important. And we can track it.”

“Better to do it now,” Dorian said, “while we’re human and can put up a fight.”

“My knives?” Heather asked as the pair disappeared out the back door. “What are they doing with my knives?”

Valoria huffed. She took a large pot down from the cupboard and ran hot water in the sink. “Everyone’s up in arms over the coyote. It’s been years since one came this close to the house.”

“Are the farthest trees still booby-trapped?” Heather asked.

“Yes and if it didn’t get hit with rocks on the way in, it probably did when it left. Come with me,” she said and lifted the pot of steaming water out of the sink.

“But I-”

“I just lost a midwife, so I’ll need someone to fill in.”

“Midwife?” Heather looked back at Rune, who shrugged and followed after her.

“Donya is in labor and she’ll need help now that she’s changed. She’s panicking over the baby going through that.”

“I didn’t know it was dangerous,” Heather said as she accepted the pot while Valoria fished more towels out of the linen closet upstairs.

“It’s not ideal. She’s in a state over it though.” Valoria dropped her voice as she opened the door to one of the shared bedrooms, which had been cleared out of everyone but Donya and a young woman who looked like her daughter. “How often are the contractions?”

“Five minutes apart,” the daughter answered.

“Good, we’re getting down to it.”

Heather hovered awkwardly by the makeshift bed. Her stomach lurched nervously. “I’ve never, uh, seen someone give birth before.” By the door, Rune averted his eyes politely, but she saw him smirking. Jackass. Easy for him to laugh; he’d had a kid — and that thought really did not help her calm down.

“Thankfully,” Valoria said with a wink, “I have. I just need an extra set of hands. I’ll tell you everything you need to do.” Heather thought that sounded like a swell change of pace from being asked to take care of everything herself.

Rune closed the door on the new mother and kitten and joined Heather where she had slid down the wall to sprawl in the hallway. He sat not quite touching her. It felt nice to just close his eyes, her warmth on one side and the cool of the wall against his back. “Hell of a morning,” he said. It had been a mistake to follow Heather up there because it meant he played errand boy for Valoria.

Heather mumbled in reply. Then her head settled on his shoulder. In the space between their bodies, her fingers grazed his. “Wake me next week,” she said. She shifted and got comfortable against him.

Rune let his cheek rest against her head. His neck bent too far and his arm felt numb as he held still too long. But he would not move for the world in that moment. Consciousness faded only to snap back as suddenly as if someone had pricked him with a pin.

Against his shoulder, Heather stirred and groaned. “I can’t even fall asleep now. I’m thinking about paying bills. And fixing the sink in the downstairs bathroom.”

Rune curled his fingers around hers. “It’ll keep. Just rest for now.”

Heather scooted closer. “While we have a chance,” she agreed. What Rune missed in sleep then he made up for in contentment.

George poked buttons on his phone fitfully. Damn thing. How the hell was he supposed to get anything to work? And why did “menu” have to be represented by four little squares? What kind of sense did that make?

He shifted his weight from foot to foot in an attempt to get comfortable while perched on a steep slope. The tree he leaned against had a trunk as thick as three men and even the lowest branches were far above his head. It was an oak and its branches were few and thick. Through them, dawn light filter and grew stronger by the moment. On the cell phone’s screen, the menu flicked out of view, replaced by a wobbling view of the rocky ground at his feet.

Perfect. If he hurried back to the house, he might be able to get a glimpse of someone turning into a cat again. What the hell were they, werecats? Was it just some parlor trick? But no, what he had seen defied that explanation. George did not consider himself the sort of fool who would deny the evidence of his own senses just because he saw something fantastic. No, something weird was afoot here and he bet good money Lee would want to keep it quiet.

Stumbling over a tumble of rocks, George turned back up the hill. He had never seen a car there when Dahl brought him there, but he stayed off the road all the same. Sweat soaked his shirt under the arms and where his belt bit into his belly. Even if a few seconds of shaky video — how much could this thing record, anyway? — would not impress an outsider, he thought Lee would see things differently. Secrets, when revealed, always seem worst to the person who’s been keeping them.

Deeper in the trees, a branch snapped loudly. George ducked around the opposite side of a tree and listened. Someone cursed, too low to make out anything more than the sentiment behind it. Paying attention now, George made out more than one set of footfalls crunching through the fallen leaves and brush. George chuckled to himself. They were obviously even less suited to this damn wilderness than he was.

He started walking again, fiddling with the video capture settings on his phone as he went. Something gave under his toe, a hunk of rock worn away by lichen and rainfall trickling through the trees, and his leg slid backwards. His knee smacked the rock and his foot sent a little cascade of shards and pebbles tumbling down. He caught himself with both hands. He started to scramble up when he heard the voices, intense and focused in his direction.

He knew if he ran, he would only attract them more precisely to him and outrunning people in forests was not part of his skill set. So he froze, crouched on the ground, cell phone under one palm, body partially hidden by a tree. He tried to think of what he wore in terms of how well it might blend in with the scenery. If he held still, would he look like a fallen branch? A cluster of rocks?

The voices swelled and retreated. His knee ached and his palms stung and his back and armpits dripped sweat. An eternity later, a bird chirped. Another answered. Ambient noise returned. George eased his stiff body out of its crouch. He picked up his cell phone. A fat spider web of black broke up the display where the heel of his hand had shattered the LCD. He mouthed swear words, too scared of the phantoms moving through the trees to use his voice, and pocketed the phone.

Even if he had dared return to the house now, knowing someone hunted nearby, no phone meant no video. He turned back downhill. He would take his car, obtain breakfast, and come back when it could be called reasonable visiting hours. Even without the video, this was such a particular sort of secret, even the thinnest of allusions would get Lee wound up. And maybe that little bit of pressure was all he needed to push her to sell. Losing the fun of seeing her really squirm would be worth it if he never had to trek through these godforsaken trees again.

Heather pulled a pile of mail toward her across the desk. Gray-whiskers dead, kittens born, half the damn house out hunting for one coyote in the California hills. Sorting junk mail and paying bills seemed like the most relaxing thing she could do that morning. She checked that the door was closed then slid open the long drawer in the desk. She wriggled her hand under the address book she had started to build for herself from Mother’s records. She fished out the postcard hidden under it.

It was just junk mail, she knew. Probably everyone in the county had received one. It didn’t mean anything. She stroked a finger over the image on the front: a smiling woman, dark hair disappearing under a tall chef’s hat, flipped a pan over a tall fire, a wave of vegetables and grain caught at the peak of a toss. She did not have to turn the card over to know what it said. She had memorized it moments after it arrived, the lines refreshed in her mind every time she looked at it in secret.

Shelley University offered Heather a degree in culinary arts in just ten months, even while she worked full-time, along with financial aid, a fast-track to the restaurant of her choice, and more testimonials than you could shake your tail at. It listed a phone number to call for more information, but she had not worked up the courage to try. The last time, she had looked too young to even be out of high school and when she could not produce transcripts or a GED, well, no school wanted her when the system said she had been born yesterday.

She slipped the card back into its place and closed the drawer. She sorted the stack of mail in front of her into bills and junk mail and letters, each with its own spot on her desk. Maybe this time it would be different, she thought as she idly flipped through a catalogue offering the “Weirdest Goods on Earth,” which was not much of a selling point in her opinion, especially when weird meant ironic and scatological. She knew Mother had at least marginally authentic records for her stashed away somewhere. If she had access to that, it would change everything. She could go to school and learn to be a real chef.

Her hands stilled in their sorting as her eyes lost their focus. Working on the other side of those double doors for the first time. Maybe she could even start her own restaurant one day, right here by the House. She imagined fanciful names for her new restaurant, names for cafés and sushi bars and steak houses. She shook herself out of the daydream, but a little smile stayed on her lips. She opened each bill with a smile, wrote out the due date with a grin, and noted the balance due with a giggle.

She lifted a rubber band-bound stack from a basket and pulled off the band. The new bills were sorted into the older ones, all in order of the date they were due. She bound them up again and set them aside. On the opposite corner of her desk, the box for all the mail directed to Carlisle waited for his attention. Carlisle liked to keep those alphabetized, which Heather thought was taking organization just a bit too far, but he got his fur in a mat if she just tossed them in.

Her smile faded when she found an envelope between M, Marcel, and O, Olive, from AmeriCard Platinum. It had not been opened. With a wince, she ran the letter opener along the fold and tore out the contents.

“Well, shit.” She rubbed her gritty, aching eyes. Two weeks past due. She would have to go into town and phone in a payment before they imposed whatever punishment they used on late customers. Fees or broken knee caps, increased interest rates or indentured servitude. All much the same thing.

She thought of the day’s score again: dead cat, hurt kid, and late bill. That was three bad things for the day, outweighed by just a new kitten being born. Maybe that meant she had met her quota, she thought as she replaced the letters and stuffed the bill back in its envelope.

The funeral procession marched through the trees and down the far slope of the hill. Rune’s feet turned leaden and dragged him to a stop at the edge. The procession was somber and raucous by turns — crying and laughing and talking and singing, the cats mourned and celebrated their illustrious dead without restraint. Rune’s breath came fast and hard and he felt pinpricks of sweat spring up all over. People streamed around Rune, bumping into him. He could not take another step.

When he returned to the House after… after leaving Caroline, he had one intense catnip binge, during which he first encountered the specter of his wife which would haunt him for another eight years. The catnip offered no solace, only disguise; she could not find him if he never again walked the earth as a human. And if she could not find him, he need not face his own self-loathing. Even now, birds chirping and the promise of new things to eat and explore could not tempt him an inch farther from the house.

Something warm curled over his clenched hand. In the bright sun, he shivered. Heather hovered near his shoulder. “You don’t have to go,” she said.

“I want to show respect. I want…”

Heather curled her arm around his, linking them at the elbow. When she stepped, he followed. At the very end of the procession, behind the mothers with their armfuls of kittens and the dancing children and the cats so old they might join the ranks of the dead at any moment, Rune and Heather walked arm-in-arm like an old couple, taking their time.

The woods had grown only a little in the decade and change since he had last walked the paths there. This year had been damp, so toadstools sprouted in abundance and the smell of leaf mold rose heavy behind their footsteps. He realized they walked faster now. Even so, the last of the procession disappeared beyond the curve of the hill. Brush began to fill in the spaces between trees and their path narrowed to a gap between knee-high walls of gray-green foliage.

“I haven’t been this far either,” Heather said suddenly. “Mother’s buried out here.”

“I didn’t go then either,” Rune confessed. They walked over the peak of the hill and the valley opened up below them. Spines of pine trees and clouds of oak rolled away in dense ranks. The valley did not belong to them, but the rest of the hill did, just until you reached the bottom. The path opened up again, deliberate this time, and twisted around the ribs of the hill. It ended in a long terrace carved into the hill, back when such work was done with dynamite and shovels and life. The graveyard.

Three hundred years of cats were buried here, dating back to when California was little more than a fever dream of gold in the minds of Europeans. A house had come later, but the House was their home in this part of the world even then. They had come on the ships of earlier explorers. Sometimes they were the explorers themselves. They had come up from the high deserts of South America and from stranger places still. This was where they ended.

The party was in full swing down below them. Sarna had already been lowered into her grave and covered with respect, but little ceremony. The living needed the funeral more than the dead. Rune and Heather lingered at the edges of the crowd where those who knew her best told the story of Sarna’s life in wild theatrics.

Heather crouched by a grave marker laid flat into the ground. The letters, struck from black stone, crumbled into each other until the name they shaped was a long blob of paler stone. “I should see her. Finally.” She stood up. “Come with me?”

Rune slipped his arm through hers. “We’ll both pay our respects.” He could not longer tell who led whom, but they walked forward just the same.

Rune’s voice seemed to echo up to Heather through the sink drain. “Hand me the glue.”

She passed the slightly rusty container of glue to him through the cupboard door then peered into the gloom to watch him work. Curled partly on his side, he daubed the brush around the exposed end of the pipe. “Wrench,” he said then twisted the pipe into place. He tightened it with the wrench, gave it a tug to check that it held, and slid out from the emptied cupboard.

“Good to go?” Heather asked. She picked up a package of toilet paper and, when Rune nodded, pushed it back into the cupboard. Spare towels and soaps followed, all repackaged after the leak had slowly soaked them. “Is there anything you don’t know how to do?”

“Fixing a leaky pipe hardly makes me a jack-of-all-trades,” Rune said as he turned out the light behind them. “What’s the next test?”

“I could use help on the–” There was a knock at the door. “Hold that thought. I’ll go see who it is.”

“Expecting someone?”

“No and uninvited guests will pitch me straight over the edge today.”

“Maybe it’s just Dopple back again,” Rune said, but she saw him disappear down the hall nonetheless.

On the list of unexpected guests, if she had to contend with them at all, George Ellison was the absolute dead last one she wanted to see standing on their doorstep. “Yes?”

“Miss Lee, you’ll have to forgive me for stopping by unannounced like this. You are rather difficult to contact though.”

“What can I do for you?” Heather made no motion to let him in the door. If he thought for one minute he was walking into her home, he had another thing coming, she thought with a fierce swell of protective pride. He could intimidate her all her wanted in some lawyer’s office, but this was her home. Nobody messed with the Queen.

“I hoped you had an answer for me about taking this place off your hands.” He leaned on the door frame with a hand curled around it; she could not close the door without shutting his hand in it.

“If that’s the case, then you’re in luck,” Heather said. She jutted her chin out and stood up straight so that she could look him in the eye as he slouched. “I have no intention of selling the house. Thank you for your interest, but I don’t think we’ll need to have any further dealings.”

The man smiled slowly. It was not a good look. “I thought you might feel that way. But I think it would be in your best interest to make a home somewhere else. Somewhere a little better suited to your lifestyle.” He leaned in more so that, when Heather did not back away, his breath ghosted across her face, smelling of burnt coffee. “Someplace that allows pets, you know? Like cats?”

Heather was too paralyzed to pull away, so she just stood her ground. He knew. Somehow, he knew. Absolutely knew.

The first thing to get through to her was Rune’s smell, clean and dark and faintly chemical from the glue today. His arm curled around her waist so he could squeeze into the doorway as well. “Good morning, sir,” he said and extended a hand past her. “I don’t believe we’ve met. Ron Rutherford. I’m Heather’s boyfriend.”

Ellison recoiled from the door even as he shook Rune’s hand. “Pleasure. Heather and I were just discussing business.”

Heather looked over her shoulder to watch Rune’s face. It was one part gruff blue-collar guy, two parts Tom Sawyer-esque charmer. “It’s much too early in the morning for business. Why don’t you join us for coffee?”

“Thank you,” Ellison said as he backed away from the door. “I have a business to run, even at this hour.” He looked like he wanted to say something more to Heather, make another sly reference to whatever he had learned about them, but his eyes flicked involuntarily to Rune and he turned back to his car without a word.

The door shut with a tiny snick. Heather sagged against it. She held on to Rune’s hand when it slid away from her waist. “He knows,” she said with a hopeless shrug.

“I heard. We may have to do something about that.” He leaned against the door, facing her, and folded their hands across her stomach.

“I’m glad you were listening in. What did you do to drive him off?”

Rune grunted. “Men like him bully women, but they’re scared to death of other men. He’s nothing but a coward.” He laughed. “I haven’t used that name in a while.”

Heather looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “Boyfriend?”

He blushed under his stubble. “Well, that too. Hell of a morning though, huh?”

“I don’t think I can take another one like it,” Heather agreed, but she thought maybe, with the warm weight of their hands against her, she might be wrong about that.

Previous Episode :: Back to Index :: Next Episode

HoC Ep. 13: Familiar Faces

Heather was having a good dream. She was not sure what it was about, but it was definitely good. She was warm and comfortable under a nice heavy blanket. She was…shaking? She told her eyes to snap open and her body to sit up suddenly. Instead, her eyes cracked open and she sort of rolled over and ended up on her side, feeling like a beached whale. “Mhrph?”

“Heather, wake up,” Carlisle said in a tone of voice that suggested he had said it rather more than once. Heather grumbled and tried to suffocate herself under a pillow to avoid the issue. Carlisle snatched it out of her limp hands and tossed it aside. “Wake up. I have to tell you something.”

Heather flopped onto her back, arms spread and eyes half open. “Why are you in my room? What time is it?”

“Seven. And I need to tell you something.”

“I picked up on that. Couldn’t it wait?”

Carlisle cleared his throat. “They may be here in an hour, so I thought it best to wake you now.”

Heather sat up on her elbows. “‘They’ had better be a delivery of donuts or I am never speaking to you again.”

“Humans, actually.”


“The coven.”


Carlisle fussed with straightening her blankets as though he intended to make the bed with Heather still in it. “I didn’t want to be the first to tell you. But there’s no avoiding it now.”

“Well, what are they coming here for?”

“Poppy never told you because the whole thing never sat right with her. She didn’t want you involved. I suppose she planned to tell you eventually, but… At any rate, they are coming here to get familiars, now that Rune can’t stop me from inviting them.”

Heather had lived as a human long enough to pick up most of the American culture. She knew what a familiar was supposed to be. She knew what humans thought about black cats, too. “They’re adopting cats? What are we, the county animal shelter?”

“Changing-cats are particularly adept familiars for them.”

“Real, honest to goodness witches?” The extent of her exposure to the occult, even just the spiritual, was the Festival of Black Cats. With all the things she had to do as a human, what time was there for anything as impractical as magic? She flopped back in bed. “Is it April already?”

“Heather, this is no joke and we are not the only House of Cats to deal with these people.” Peering at him from one eye, Heather saw him sit up a little straighter. “This has been going on for a very long time.” When she did not respond, he pulled open the curtains, letting in a wave light.

Heather groaned and curled an arm over her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said, voice muffled by her elbow. “I’m having a very hard time wrapping my head around what sounds like slavery.”

She felt Carlisle settle on the edge of the bed. “Cats who are so inclined make the choice to go with a human to work as their partner.”

“This is just rife with potential for abuse.” She nudged him with her knee, vaguely thinking of shoving him off the bed. He did not budge and it was too much work anyway.

“Naturally.” He scooted back several defiant inches and leaned across her legs, pinning her, to rest his elbow on the other side. “Which is why they all keep in touch with the House they came from. You don’t really think all those letters I get just come from cats vacationing in Florida, do you?”

“You talk to them?”

“They write so I know they are well. Several, in point of fact, were here for the winter. They do get vacations, you know.”

Heather squiggled back to sit against the head of the bed. “And Mother never told me about this why?”

“Cats are taken as young adults and she felt it was too big a decision for them to make at that age. And it is each cat’s decision.”

“So, if I had found a human who wanted me, I could have just left and there would be nothing she could say about it.” Under the slow-burn anger, because Mother had known Heather longed to leave, she felt a twist of comfort. It was a confirmation that Mother had been, at least in part, the person Heather had known and not just the immaculate Queen everyone else seemed to worship.

Carlisle sighed and patted her leg. “Cats value their independence above all else, to be certain.” He had known, better than anyone, how deep her desperation had run.

“Do the cats live as humans?” Maybe Heather was not as unique as she had thought. Was there a world full of cats who could have helped her make her human life succeed?

Carlisle hedged, offering no encouragement. “Some establish human lives to one extent or another. Others do not.”

“And are these humans…they aren’t…involved with the cats?”

Confusion cleared into an expression of horrified amusement. “What? Oh, no. My, what cat would choose a human?”

Heather cleared her throat. “What cat, indeed,” she muttered. In her mind, a woman’s long hair twined around the words “married, 1999.” The beautiful and terrible specter of Caroline Summers haunted her. “And you’re telling me that in an hour, the House will be full of these people — with permission, no less — hunting for the perfect familiar?”

“There are only a few of them in our area, but yes.”

Heather thought of Yvonne and Ms. Dahl and the exterminators and all the humans she was not allowed to bring home. Now this, like a big joke, like Mother still telling her that Heather had to live by different rules from everyone else. “I need coffee before I cope with this. Lots and lots of coffee.”

Topaz shook out his hair and tugged his shirt down. He was glad he had stolen so many of Heather’s cat’s bane pills. Not to mention the money. He stepped out of the bushes near where he made his home and picked his way down the small slope to the back side of the shopping center. The trash bins smelled of mice and the walkways were littered with gold-eyed, black-feathered birds pecking after human leavings.

The woods had emptied of everything small enough for Topaz to eat, all of them gravitating to the French fries and bread crusts and popcorn bags. There was all the food you could eat, if you could dodge the people and the cars. And if you were not cute enough for someone to try to take you home. Topaz sniffed and veered towards the fast food restaurant. Eventually, his hunger would outweigh the risks of catching birds in the plaza, but as long as the money lasted, he would hunt bacon cheeseburgers instead.

With his burger in hand, Topaz sat on one of the benches in the middle of the center, where he could watch people going by. He would have to stop at the gas station that night and scrub his clothing clean in the bathroom; the stains were starting to outnumber the clean patches. It was still early, so most of the people were adults. As it got later, the teenagers would come out in droves, especially on a Saturday night. Topaz looked wistfully over at the movie theater, their preferred destination. He would love to see a movie. But his cash pile was dwindling rapidly.

He stuffed another bunch of French fries into his mouth. Maybe he could get a job. He had never tried that before. He wished he had asked Heather about her jobs when he had the chance. Homesickness turned the food into dust in his mouth. He missed Heather’s food. He missed Carlisle, even if Carlisle was never going to speak to him again. His missed everyone.

He wanted to go home.

As his hunger subsided, he noticed a scent beyond meat and grease, some foreign familiarity. He looked up. He knew that woman, rattling through the parking lot with a cart full of groceries. Where had he seen her?

Topaz was out of his seat before he realized what he was doing. She had been at the House with that man. She had talked to Heather the day Heather came home. His instinct to avoid cars fell away as he jogged after her through the parking lot. “You know Heather,” he said without preamble.

The woman jumped and flinched away. She would not recognize Topaz, of course. He had not thought of that. And he looked awful, he knew, grimy and foul, not like a proper cat should. “Heather Lee?”

“We’re friends. We–” Topaz almost said they lived together, which was both no longer true and not in line with Heather’s cover story. “I helped her move in. Do you think you could–” Get a message to her, he wanted to say.

“I’ve got to talk to her,” the woman said, running right over Topaz’s plea with one of her own. She grabbed his forearm when he leaned away. “You’ll be seeing her, won’t you?”

Topaz could not bear the thought of never making it home. “Yeah, I’ll see her sometime.”

“She doesn’t have a cell phone or a home phone. What am I supposed to do, send her a letter?”

“You could,” Topaz said and wondered where he could get a postcard and a stamp to send one. Dear Carlisle, he thought. No, dear Heather. Dear Rune? Who would bring him home? Dear home.

“George won’t wait forever,” she said. She touched her cheek then rubbed her left hand. “She has to accept our offer. We need the money — We want to close the deal.” She turned away. With the press of a button, the trunk of her car swung open and she started loading paper bags into it.

Topaz fidgeted. The cars moving around the lot made him nervous and something ugly twisted around in his belly. He remembered the name George from Heather’s first day as well. He remembered George and the woman had talked about a buyer being interested. They had been talking about the House. “She won’t sell,” Topaz said, sick in his certainty that this was the reason the woman wanted to talk to Heather.

The woman’s back tensed. She straightened up but did not turn to face him. “Please inform Ms. Lee that I would like to speak to her at her earliest possible convenience.” Her voice cracked at the end.

Topaz backed away. She did not see him shake his head in mute denial. Then he turned and dashed away. He ran past the remains of his food and the bird pecking at it. He stopped. He hated to do it, but he went back, shooed the bird away, and bundled up the leftovers. Eventually, he thought, his appetite would probably return, when that ugly feeling stopped gnawing at him.

Freshly showered and barely dressed, Heather rushed downstairs to answer the door. She had no idea how to deal with this situation. What was she supposed to say? Welcome to the House of Cats; please don’t adopt anyone I like?

She opened the door. A truck and two SUVs were parked in front of the house and eight people clustered on front step. One woman started to say something and offer her hand, but Heather stared past her. “I know you,” she said.

A woman in her forties peered around from the back of the group. “Heather?”

Smooth out the lines. Lighten the hair. Drop back thirty years. “Umber?”

Umber pushed her way to the front of the group and threw her arms around Heather. “I can’t believe it’s you. It’s been ages.”

Heather cautiously returned the embrace. “A few lifetimes. What are you doing here?”

“Same as last time,” Umber said. “I’m picking out my own changing-cat this time.” She still had a hand on Heather’s shoulder.

It would be rude to shrug her off. Heather tried to hold still. “Is that why you were here last time?”

“What else would we be doing here? You guys won’t let us get near the place. I’m surprised you didn’t meet us at the door with a shotgun and a nondisclosure form.” Her laugh was bright and warm and had not aged at all.

“I was kind of young at the time.” Heather smiled reluctantly. “I don’t remember anyone but you being here.”

“Naw, my parents were here to get a familiar. I was just along for the ride.”

Someone coughed discretely. “May we come in?”

Heather looked up. Oh, right. Everyone else. “Please. Welcome to the House of Cats. I’m told there are rooms ready for you down here.”

Heather led them to the rooms Carlisle had said would be set up for them. They were down at the far end of the house, past the kitchen and tucked away. The room where Rune had convalesced was down there as well. She did not know if he was still sleeping there. “There are two, so I’ll leave it up to you to decide who goes where.”

Umber tossed her overnight bag into the room and took Heather by the arm. “Come on. We’ve got thirty years to catch up on. See you guys later,” she called over her shoulder. She steered Heather towards the kitchen. “I can’t believe how little the house has changed. That was the coolest weekend ever. I never forgot it.”

Heather had thought of that time over the years with protective fondness. She had warmed herself over that memory whenever human life became too difficult. Umber could do this, she would tell herself. “I had never met a human my own age before,” Heather said.

Umber looked her up and down. “Speaking of which, you’ve got to tell me what wrinkle cream you use. You’ve barely aged.” She turned into the solarium without looking, as though she had long since mapped the whole house in her mind.

Heather shook her head. “Extenuating circumstances. I always thought of you as still being ten years old.”

“I wish! Well, no,” she said as she sat down. “Then I would have to go through being a teenager again. No thank you.”

Heather curled up on the couch facing Umber. “This is so weird. I never knew why you were here. I thought there must have been some mistake, that you got lost here or something. I didn’t know there were regular humans involved with the House.”

“Try being ten years old and seeing a changing-cat for the first time. When Wendell died, it was like losing my brother.” Umber looked away, her mouth pressed thin. She sniffed. “Sorry. You would think I would be okay after five years. Everyone said he died young, even for your kind.”

“I’m sorry. I just found out this year that my Mother had died.”

“You didn’t know?”

“It’s a long story,” Heather said.

Umber spread her hands. “I’m not going anywhere. Truth is, it’s a little hard to even look at cats. Replacing Wendell, well, it’s just not possible.” She shook her head and gave Heather a lopsided smile. “So. Let’s hear it.”

Rune had been trailing the humans all day and every time he thought he would be able to get one of them alone, another cat came along and interrupted. He suspected they were trying to keep him away from them, rightly concerned that he would take exception to them being there. But that was before he found Heather with one of them. No one else was around. The two women sat on the couch, gossiping like school girls. They had not moved all day.

“Excuse me, Heather,” he said and jumped onto the back of the couch.

“Hi. What’s up?”

“I’m afraid I have to borrow her,” he said and tilted his head towards the human, “for a while.”

Heather looked suspicious. “You’re not going to do something hideous to her, are you?”

Rune glared. “You’ve never seen one of these events before. So you will be no help at all in doing background checks on the humans.”

“Background checks? What, you’re our security guard now?”

“As a matter of fact. If you don’t believe me, just go ask Carlisle,” Rune said, hoping against hope that Heather would not call his bluff.

Heather finally shrugged. “Umber, I’ll catch up with you later. And if he’s rude to you,” she said with a glance and a raised eyebrow at Rune, “just give him a good shake by the scruff of the neck. You have my permission.”

Umber laughed. “Sure thing. I’ll see you later.” When Heather was out of earshot, she patted the seat cushion. “It’s funny you should bring up Carlisle. Because he already did background interviews on all of us by mail. So I’m wondering what you really want to talk about.”

“You won’t tell Heather, will you?” Rune asked as he jumped down to sit with her.

“That depends. Is it something bad?”

“It’s something devious. But not bad.” He curled his tail around his body like a bolster. “She’ll be happy about it. Eventually.” He grimaced, baring his teeth momentarily. “I need a favor,” he bit out at last.

“What sort of favor?”

“You’ve been talking to her all day. You haven’t looked at any of the cats here or talked to anyone else. Are you really going to choose a familiar?”

Umber leaned sideways and rested her head against the back of the couch. “I thought I was ready to have a changing-cat in my life again. I think I was wrong.”

Jackpot. “My friend needs to go into town. But there’s no way her mother will let her on her own.”

“You need a taxi service, in other words. And a chaperone.”

“My brother is out there somewhere. He did something to help me and got banished for it.”

Umber sat up with a look of disgust. “You banish people here? I mean, how can you? Where else is a cat supposed to go? You are the place, aren’t you?”

“Stay focused,” Rune snapped. “Are you willing to go without a cat this year? I would make sure that it doesn’t reflect poorly on you.”

“Why aren’t you taking her into town?” Umber asked archly. “Or Heather?”

“I can’t leave the House,” Rune muttered. “And Heather can’t because Carlisle is her best friend and he did the banishing.”

“So you’re going behind everyone’s back. Sounds dangerous.” But her eyes sparkled with mischief. She no doubt thought the House was a magical paradise. There could be no real danger there. Idiot.

“I just need to get my brother back here. I won’t let them send him away again.”

“What about this kitten?”

“It was her idea,” Rune said with an embarrassed smile.

“My kind of kid.” She reached out like she would pet him or ruffle his fur but stopped even before he glared at her. “Introduce me to her then. I’ll go along with this.”

“You understand that if anything happens to her, if you prevent her from coming home or–”

“Stop,” Umber said and slashed her hand through the air to cut off his words. “Don’t even go there. I grew up with a changing-cat for a brother. I’ll make sure your kitten stays safe.”

Rune hesitated. But Heather knew this woman and seemed to trust her. And Carlisle might be a cold-hearted, brother-banishing son of a dog, but Rune believed he took his job seriously. Umber had to be the safest choice. “Wait here. I can’t be seen setting this up, so I’ll send Rafflesia out to you.”

Heather waited one short second between knocking on the door and opening it. Voices bloomed as it opened, cats and humans chatting amiably in cat-speak. The humans, all veterans in a part of her world she hardly knew, spoke fluently. By the window, Umber had Rafflesia on her lap and the two were speaking in low voices.

“Hey, Heather,” Umber called and waved her over.

Heather dropped to her knees beside them. “Rafflesia, your mother is beside herself.”

“She’ll calm down in a while. I just told her and she took it pretty hard,” Rafflesia said.

“That’s an understatement.” She chewed on a thumbnail, trying to decide what to say. Good luck out there? Don’t go? It’s harder than you think?

“Auntie Heather, this is my decision,” Rafflesia said firmly. “I want to go on an adventure.”

“Heather, you know I wouldn’t pressure her into this,” Umber said.

Heather did not know that. She liked the idea that she had a childhood friend, a human she could trust. But Rafflesia was her friend now as well. “Just, just give us a minute, would you?”

Rafflesia stretched and jumped down to the floor. “Come on, then. We’ll talk outside.”

Heather followed Rafflesia past the other humans, who were all listening intently while trying to pretend they were not. The cats made no such pretense for their part.

Out in the hall, Heather knelt again. “Are you really sure you want to do this? You’ve hardly ever been away from home and never without your mother.”

“Are you saying I’m going to get homesick? I know this is a big deal. But it’s not like Umber’s going to lock me up for the rest of my life. I can come here on holidays. I’ll see everyone again.”

“It’s not just that. Your whole life will be different.” There were so many things Heather could teach her, so many warnings she could give her, so many mistakes she could save her from, if only Rafflesia would wait.

Rune trotted up to them. Heather noticed Rafflesia’s eyes dart to the side before she shook her head.  “I would expect you to encourage her.”

Heather sputtered, “You? You’re telling her to go?”

“I talked to Rafflesia about it before she told her mother,” he said as though that explained everything.

Rafflesia hissed to get their attention. “I don’t want you two playing tug-o-war over me. It’s not your decision.” She put her paws up on Heather’s knees. “But it would be nice if you gave it your blessing. You have all these great things you’ve done, all these places you’ve seen, and I want to see them too.”

Heather sighed. What she would not have given for someone to offer her permission, even encouragement, when she wanted to leave. She would have known she was welcome to come back without fearing she would be trapped again. “Of course.” She stroked a hand over Rafflesia’s ears. “You should do what you want. And I know we don’t have much time, but ask me any questions you have.”

Rafflesia purred. “Thank you.”

“Go on. Umber will be wondering what you’re doing.” Heather closed the door behind Rafflesia. Then she turned on Rune, who had been watching in silence. “I can’t believe you.”

“Because heaven forbid I change my attitude towards humans or living outside,” Rune grumbled.

“No, I mean, I actually fail to believe you. I think you’re up to something. I’m not sure I like it, whatever it is.” Heather lurched to her feet. “But I hope you know what you’re getting Raff into,” she said. “She’ll pay the price if this goes wrong.”

Rune shrugged. “Not if I can help it.”

Rafflesia purred as Valoria groomed her one last time. “Are you sure you won’t come down to see me off?” She did not even mind when her mother’s rasping tongue rumpled the fur between her ears and smoothed it down again for a second time.

Valoria rested her chin on her daughter’s head. “I’ll just make a scene, dear.”

“I’ll be back before you know it. I promise.” She knew it was true and even so, her stomach churned.

Valoria bumped their heads together. “You’d better get going.”

Rafflesia jumped up onto the bathroom counter and gulped down the cat’s bane pills Heather had given her. As she dressed and pulled her hair up into a bouncy pony tail, she admired herself in the mirror. She had to touch the mirror and watch her hand connect with its reflection, hardly believing it was really her in the mirror. She grinned. Even if she was not really leaving for good, she planned to enjoy her adventure all the same. When she left the bathroom, her mother had gone. Nodding to herself, trying to remember it would be easier without mom there, she slung the backpack over her shoulder and headed downstairs.

All the other cats were going unchanged. The humans loaded them into carriers, ready to go in the various vehicles. Heather and Carlisle presided over everything, but Rune was no where in sight. He had come to her in the night with last pieces of advice:

“Don’t leave Umber for any reason. Don’t let anyone separate you. And if anyone asks, she is your aunt and you’re with her for spring break.”


“And Topaz? What do you want me to say to him?”


“Just get him back here. You have enough cat’s bane for both of you?”


“And a change of clothes for Topaz. Everything’s packed.”


“Okay. Get home safe, kid.”

Umber looked up from the cats she was talking to and saw Rafflesia. “Hey, check you out. Looking good.”

Rafflesia stood beside her. Her hands would not stop sweating. “I’m ready to go.” Her voice shook as she said it.

“Not so fast,” Heather said. Rafflesia felt a jolt, part fear and part hope, at the idea that Heather would stop her at the last minute. But all she said was, “Aren’t you going to say goodbye to me?”

Rafflesia willed Heather to sense though the hug they shared that she intended to come home again. She hated to make Heather worry. “Thank you,” she said.

“For what?” Heather asked, still holding her.

“For trusting me to do this.”

In a whisper, Heather said, “I trust you and Rune both.” She pulled away. “I know you’re going to be fine. You’ll make us all proud. And we’ll see you again.”

Rafflesia waved goodbye as Umber’s truck pulled away from the house. She watched, twisted backwards in her seat, until the rise of the hill blocked it from sight. She turned around with a sigh. “That was harder than I thought it would be,” she said.

Next to her, Umber said, “Growing up always is.”

Rafflesia turned in a slow circle. “He’s not here.”

“Are you sure?”

“Do you see someone who looks like that?”

“So? Can you just sniff him out?”

Rafflesia gave her a look of withering scorn. “Do I look like a dog to you?”

“I just thought –”

“Shh. Let me think.” She scanned the plaza. When they came here with Heather, they went home through the back lot. She pulled Umber after her by the hand. “Through here,” she said as they slipped down a small path running between the end of a block of stores and the unused patio of a restaurant.

“But there’s no one back here,” Umber said.

“If he’s not out with the humans, he’s holed up for the day,” Rafflesia said and crossed the parking lot. A hill of scrubby brush and oak trees rose behind it, headed in the direction of the House. A billboard planted halfway up proclaimed it the location of the Shadow Hills Plaza Extension, but the hill was otherwise untouched. Rafflesia walked past the first tree and stopped.


Rafflesia hushed her again. She turned her head; stupid ears, fastened in one place all the time. Umber watched her with interest, her own head cocked as well. Nothing. She continued up into the trees.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Umber said.

“Neither did I. I just have to think like him. He has to be staying out here to sleep and change.” She braced against a tree trunk as she climbed over a ledge of rocks. “Not too close to the edge — he could be seen as a human.” Heather said that when they all had to hide in the woods behind the house. “Up in a tree, out of reach.” Elly and Rune knew that; a cat in danger always seeks higher ground. “But Topaz will be here, around people. He loves them, which is, okay, weird.” But the heart wants what it wants, Mysti had told her when she asked about toms and queens and kittens and why Mysti went away all the time.

“Up there,” Umber said. She was out of breath and leaned back against a tree, pointing up into another. “Bag.”

Topaz’s bag was wedged into the crook of a tree. Rafflesia tipped her head back. Up in the high branches there was gold amid the green. “Topaz,” she called, low and soft. He moved, but did not come down. He smells Umber, she thought. “Topaz, it’s me, Rafflesia.”

There are taboos against picking up cats, but when Topaz jumped and clawed his way down the tree and catapulted into Rafflesia’s waiting arms, there was nothing she could do but clutch him to her chest and rub her cheek against his head.

He pushed back against her, tucking his head under her chin to share scent, purring all the while. At last, in a ragged voice, he said, “Man, are you a sight for sore eyes.”

Rafflesia laughed and clutched him tighter. “It’s time to go home.”

Topaz watched as Umber shut the door to her motel room behind her. On the bed, Rafflesia sprawled on her stomach, TV remote in hand. Topaz jumped from floor to bed to her back. He kneaded her shirt gently, getting the feel of her under his paws, then settled down. Rafflesia turned up the volume on the TV with a glance at the far wall.

“We’ll need to put in an appearance later,” Umber said in a low voice as she sat next to them. The TV almost drowned her out, even side by side. But next door was another room where a cat and human stayed and they did not want to be overheard. “Everyone is going to eat dinner in there.” She jerked her thumb towards the wall.

“How are we going to explain when I leave?” Rafflesia asked. Her breathing pitched Topaz like a cork on a wave.

Umber shrugged. “Just tell them. If you say you want to go home, that’s that. I’d be in more trouble if I stopped you. Maybe Heather will let me stay a bit when we get back.”

“Do you think Carlisle will talk to me yet?” Topaz asked. He spoke to Rafflesia, but he watched Umber. A human talking in cat-speak. She looked different somehow, not like a cat when changed. All human. It was amazing. He watched as she got up again and pulled a plastic bag from her suitcase. Inside were bottles of shampoo and soap. He concentrated on her movements, which had an odd elegance to them, even if they were so much clumsier than a cat’s.

Under him, Rafflesia made an unhappy noise. “I think he’s still pretty upset. Did you know he and Rune don’t get along? They make nasty faces behind each other’s backs.”

“At least I can count on Rune and Heather being happy to see me. Did she give you all that stuff?” Topaz asked with a flick of his tail to indicate her backpack.

“Some of it,” Rafflesia said slowly. “Rune and I didn’t exactly tell her what we were doing.”

Hearing Rafflesia speak with anything less than bright, teenaged enthusiasm surprised him. “But she knows, right?”

“Oh, sure. I mean, she pretty much said so before I left.”

“You mean she just figured it out?” Topaz’s tail thrashed so much Rafflesia had to bat it away from her head. “Did Carlisle actually rescind my banishment?”

“Not exactly.”

“Had Heather overruled him?”

“Not exactly.”

“Raff, did anyone other than you and Rune decide I could come back?”

“Not exactly,” she said with the misery Topaz suddenly felt. “But Rune said all you had to do was come home and he would take care of everything.”

Topaz jumped from her back and paced across the bed. “I’m still banished. I’m not allowed back.”

Rafflesia rolled onto her side so she could gesture at him with one arm. “Heather will let you back as soon as she sees you.”

“No, she won’t! You don’t understand.” Quietly, he said, “You didn’t see the way she looked at me after the fire.” Like he had betrayed all her trust. Like their friendship had been irrevocably spoiled. “She won’t forgive me and neither will Carlisle.”

“Heather said she would see me soon,” she said, a desperate edge to her voice. Her cheeks flushed red under a smattering of freckles. “She meant she knew I would come home with you.”

“You think. You think that’s what she meant. I bet she didn’t really know what you were doing.”

“Topaz, you have to come home with me. Look at you. You’re skinny. Your fur is matted. You can’t stay out here.”

“I won’t go where I’m not welcome.” His fur bristled at the thought. He had been kicked out of a home once before this. She could not imagine what it was like to be driven away by someone you loved. “I won’t go.”

Across the room, Umber crinkled the plastic bag in her hands. She looked between Rafflesia and Topaz, eyebrows pulled together and a tooth biting into her lower lip. “This is an unexpected complication,” she said with a sour twist to her mouth. “Maybe I won’t be seeing Heather again as soon as I thought.”

Previous Episode :: Back to Index :: Next Episode