While it may be that crows and ravens get the reputation for psychopompery, what most people don't know is that it is the pigeons who carry the souls of the dead. For every flock of them you see, at least half will have a small ghost nestled on their backs. They're wispy little wailing creatures that complain endlessly while the pigeons do their best to pick food off the street.
When a ghost-carrying pigeon dies -either by a car or a dog or a badly placed window or maybe by me or one of my cousins- its feathery bird spirit will flutter away, dragging the hapless human ghost with it onto the next place. I don't much care about those, as I can't eat spirits (or rather I can, but they don't taste good at all and upset my belly for days).
The only ghosts that get saddled onto pigeons are the loud ones. The ones who cry, or complain, or scream impotently to the heavens. The pigeons don't care because they’re used to this sort of thing. Humans don't care because they can't hear them, and I don't care because I'm a cat, and we very rarely care about things that aren't directly cat-related.
So you can see why on the day that the young human I allow residency in my recently-acquired third house (because no self-respecting cat has only one home) arrived home with a pigeon in a cage, I was, at first, uninterested. The bird was in a cage, meaning she was, for all intents and purposes, inedible, and the ghost she carried was of no consequence.
The girl- Kathleen- placed the cage on the dining room table and immediately set about preparing a permanent place for the bird in the den. I had already been on the table, sunning myself in the corner lit by the window. I deigned to raise my head and, casually as I could, stretched and turned and curled in such a way that I was looking at the bird directly without having to actually stand up.
She was a young pigeon, full of creams, browns, and pinks, and when the ghost clutching her back saw me, it began to scream with the voice of a woman.
"Will you shut that spirit up?" I hissed. "I was taking a nap."
The pigeon stuck her head under her wing and started a quick session of nervous preening. "Can't," she said. "It won't listen."
I got to my feet and batted the cage. "Hey, stupid," I said to the ghost. "Keep it down."
"Doreen!" she screeched. "Doreen, where are you?"
"Cut it out!" said the pigeon. She fluttered anxiously.
Suddenly a pair of human hands were lifting me up. "Saskia, you leave Arnulf alone."
It wasn't the girl who picked me up, it was Nan, the maid. I like to consider myself generous that I let Nan into the household; she's not a very well trained human. She's always shooing me out of rooms and off of furniture, but at the same time she cleans up messes I make and empties my litter, so I suppose she's trying her best. She placed me on the floor and moved the pigeon's cage onto the kitchen counter.
"Kathleen!" she said. "Watch your bird, the cat's trying to eat him."
"Her," I said uselessly.
"Bad, Sasky," said the girl, coming back into the room. "You leave Arnie alone." She took the bird's cage and left with it, though I could still hear the ghost screaming down the hall.
I refused to stick around after that indignity and scratched the back door until Nan let me outside. I decided to pay my first house a visit.
My first house is much smaller than my third (which I suppose is more like a manor in any case) and only has one occupant: a man named Gerald. He’s the human I’ve owned since I was very small, and I am exceedingly lucky on that part because Gerald is a wizard, and they are hard to come by in this day and age. Furthermore, he's one of those wizards who can understand cats, meaning I could go and complain at him about the bird and he would have to listen.
The only drawback to Gerald is that he insists on calling me Nora. All my humans call me different names. None of them can accept that I am a cat, and thus need nothing more than that. You can't improve perfection, after all.
"What about all the other cats?" Gerald said when I told him, once.
"They are complete cats, too." He didn't understand, I could tell. Humans are painfully limited that way.
I went in through the catflap on his back door and found Gerald sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, surrounded by computer parts, and staring intently at a glowing screen. So of course I went over and sat on him.
"Hello, Nora," he said, keeping his eyes on the laptop. "I'm working."
"The girl I own has gotten a pigeon with a noisy ghost on it."
"That's a shame," he said, not paying me the slightest attention. I stood on his lap and nosed his face.
"Nora, please!" he said, scooting me out of the way. "I'm trying to work."
"Pay attention to me!"
"In a bit, I promise. I just need to fix this and then you can tell me all about the ghost." He tried to scratch my chin, but I turned away.
"Forget it," I said, going to the catflap. "If that's your attitude, I'm going."
"See you at dinner, then."
I had half a mind to stay and widdle on his bed for that. Not even trying to stop me and assuming I would come back! Well, let's see how he feels being an abandoned human, I thought. Let him try to be without a cat for a few days. That'll show him.
I went to my second house. My second house isn't nearly so big as Kathleen's, and it's a little smaller than Gerald but where Gerald rents and doesn't care much for decoration, the third house is filled with old smelling shiny things to bat and older smelling furniture to sleep on and thick carpets good for soundless pouncing and a vast garden filled with creatures smaller than I to chase. I have two humans living in that one, Marian and Mother.
Unfortunately, I have to share them both with Cat and Cat.
Cat is a large, black, fluffy fellow with white paws and a dab of white on his face. Marion and Mother call him Boots. I don't much have to worry about him, as he's a ridiculously gregarious fellow and doesn't mind sharing homes. He's much older than Cat and me, and predominantly owns the half of the living room that gets sunlight in the day, Marion's bedroom, and the left half of the sofa, though occasionally he has to settle on Mother's lap for that.
The other Cat is lanky and cream with short fur and patched of grey-brown. He's rude and hates sharing humans, but none of us will argue that he definitely owns the garden, the garage, and the window box in the kitchen. Marion and Mother like to call him Ranger. Both Cat and Cat have owned Marion and Mother for far longer than I have.
I crept down the ivy-covered wall in the back of the garden and trotted towards the house. As I was passing the azaleas, something small, brown, and quick caught my eye, so of course I pounced on it.
"Ah!" it screamed. "Put me down! Put me down you stupid cat!”
It wriggled and flailed wildly with its little arms. I shook my head in order to quiet it down, but that didn’t work. I wound up spitting it on the ground and pressing my paw over it to prevent it from escaping.
“Oh,” I said. “Pixie.”
And a pixie it was. A little brown miniature-human-ish shaped creature with a gnarly face and extra sharp teeth. I had it pressed to the ground, but I knew behind it were wings that looked deceptively like those of a dragonfly. I hate pixies. They’re almost as annoying as ghosts- indigestion and all- but at least ghosts can’t curse fleas on you.
“Let me up, cat.”
“First promise you won’t curse me.”
“Let me up and let’s see how we feel.”
“Don’t make me eat you,” I said. I meant it. Pixies taste terrible.
“Fine! Fine, I promise I won’t curse you, you stupid little cat. Let me up, I’ve got a job to do.”
I let him up and he zipped into the tomato bush. I groomed myself for a moment to get the taste of pixie out of my mouth. As I did, Cat came slinking past.
What? You want to know which cat? Well fine, it was Cat that Marion and Mother called Ranger.
"I wouldn't go that way," I said. "There's a-"
"Go away," said Cat Ranger. "I'm hunting."
His ears flicked back. "Leave me alone, Cat."
My tail twitched, irritated. "Fine," I said. "Be that way." I left him to it.
Let him get cursed, then, I thought, trotting to the house. See if I care.
Marion and Mother are like Gerald in that they're cat people, and like good cat people they recognize that we cats like to go indoors and outdoors at our leisure. They, like Gerald, have a cat flap. Marion was in the kitchen, standing at the table with her easel and painting. Something that smelled like roast was cooling on the stove. It, of course, had my full attention.
"Maisy!" Marion said while I pawed at the roast. There was metal foil covering the tray it was in, and I was having trouble getting it off.
"Maisy, no. Down." Marion picked me up and carried me into the livingroom. "Bad cat," she said. Go play."
Cat- the one they called Boots- was sunning himself on the sofa. "Went for the roast?" he said, not getting up.
"None of your concern," I said primly.
He rolled over so that he was still lying in the sun, but was now facing me. "Well miss hoity-toity's in a foul mood today. What's eating you?"
"My other humans are misbehaving. One has a pigeon with a loud ghost, and the other won't appreciate me. Now Marion's not even letting me have roast. And- and," It occurred to me what was really bothering me more than all that. "I haven't had my back scratched at all today. Nobody has so much as cooed at me."
"Tough," said Cat sympathetically.
"Well not for long," I said. I hopped on top of the couch and, from there, the bookshelf. I walked along the wall, behind all the decorative things there, until almost everything had fallen over and smashed on the floor.
"Maisy!" Marion rushed in from the kitchen. "What are you doing?"
"Pay attention to me."
She didn't understand me and tried to get me down. I just sat out of reach and watched her try.
"Mother!" she shrieked. "Your cat is making a mess!"
"She's your cat when she's causing trouble," said Mother. Mother toddled down the hall, keeping her hand on the wall for support, and laughed when she saw us. "Maisy-cat, get down from there. Come on, here kitty kitty."
She patted her lap and I knew she wouldn't kick me outside, so I gracefully leapt from the bookshelf to the floor and ran to her, purring up a storm.
"Poor old Maisy," said Mother, scratching my ears. I purred. Poor me indeed.
I don't know if Mother is a witch, or if she's just very clever. I never catch the smell of magic on her, but that could be because of the rose perfume she always wears. In any case, sometimes I think she can almost understand me.
"Troublemaker," Marion said. She went into the kitchen and came back a moment later with a dustpan.
Cat Boots watched me from the sofa. "Kiss up," he yawned. I didn’t mind him any: he sometimes did the same thing.
“Alright now," Mother said, hefting me up to rest on her shoulder. "Maisy. It's time for you to go outside."
"I'd rather not," I said.
She started carrying me towards the door, but I wriggled out of her arms. Then I ran behind the sofa and turned invisible coming out the corner- which is a trick any cat who isn't completely stupid knows how to do.
"Maisy!" she said, looking beneath the sofa. "Maisy?" She laughed after a minute and went back to her room. I slunk back into the kitchen and, through there, into the laundry room and fell asleep in the clean clothes basket, where I stayed for the rest of the night.
* * * * *
The next morning I woke up to the sound of buzzing. Normally buzzing alone wouldn't have been enough to get me out of a nice bed of laundry (and what lovely clean laundry it was!) but the buzzing was coupled with the sizzle and smell of bacon cooking. I went to investigate.
Marion was responsible for the bacon: she was humming and cooking and both Cats were giving her their undivided attention. The buzzing was coming from the rapid beating of wings that belonged to the creature peering over Marion's shoulder.
"Hey, pixie!" I said. "Who let you in?"
"Me," said Cat Ranger, not looking away from Marion and the bacon. "I caught him in the garden. I was going to kill him and leave him for Mother, but Marion is cooking bacon."
"Fair enough. Pixie, why are you here?"
"Sent to watch the woman," he said. "And I like bacon."
"Marion," I meowed. "Share the bacon with us all."
She looked and saw us three cats (though not the pixie) and laughed. "Beggars!" she said, tearing off a piece of cooked bacon from a plate. She crumbled it into several pieces and threw them on the floor. "Now quiet, you."
“Marion, what are you still doing here?" Mother said, creaking her way down stairs. "Shouldn't you be at the interview?"
"That's not for another few hours, Mother," Marion said. "I have plenty of time."
The pixie swooped down while her back was turned and stole a piece off the plate. When the bacon on the floor was gone, I pawed at Marion’s foot, hoping she’d give me more.
“Come on, Maisy. You’ve had enough already.”
“Nuh-uh,” I meowed. She ignored me and divided the remaining bacon with Mother. Seeing that there was nothing more for me there, I went to the catflap and left. It was breakfast time at my other houses, and no cat with half a brain would leave perfectly good food alone.
* * * * *
I was still snubbing Gerald, so I went to my third house first. Kathleen let me in and the second I stepped indoors I regretted it. I had been hoping against hope that the pigeon and her screaming spirit would be gone by the time I came back, but there was no such luck. She was still there, and the ghost was still screaming.
It was almost enough to make me want to skip breakfast here and go see what Gerald was up to. Almost.
"Come on, Sasky," said the girl, preparing the fancy canned food they fed me here. "Here, kitty kitty."
She placed my dish on the ground and I made a show of snubbing it. I sniffed at it lightly, looked up at her as if to say, "this is it?" and then turned away from it.
"Aww, come on, Saskia," she said, scratching my head. "You know you like it."
It was true; I did like it. But I waited until I was sure she wasn't going to give me anything else before eating. Had it been Marion, I would have snubbed the food, gotten something else, and then eaten both things. She was the only one that trick worked on, however. Mother knew cats too well and Gerald knew me too well.
Kathleen, however, was as softhearted as Marion. She gave me a dry cat-treat, which I ate greedily before going back to the food dish. She had cold cereal, as usual, and then left to get ready for school.
When Kathleen had gone and Nan was busy vacuuming upstairs, I decided to pay the pigeon a visit again.
She was in the same cage, though someone had placed newspaper on the bottom, and had hung feeding dishes on the sides, and she looked the way all pigeons look when they’re not distracted by food: slightly nervous and slightly confused, but confident about their confusion. I leapt onto the low cabinet where her cage was and sat.
“Hello,” she said.
“Doreen!” screamed the ghost. “Please, has anyone seen her?”
I ignored the ghost. It never helps trying to talk to them: they’re always in their own little worlds. “Where did you come from?” I said.
The pigeon tilted her head sideways to look at me better. “Outside.”
“So not a pet shop, then?”
“Listen, would you like to be outside again?”
"Oh yes!" said the pigeon.
And with that, I knocked over the pigeon’s cage. It clattered to the ground with both the ghost and the pigeon screaming. The cage door popped open and Pigeon fluttered out. She flew out of the kitchen and into the living room where the ceilings were higher.
In the living room, she perched on the flat bit of wall securing the small decorative window near the slope of the ceiling, far out of reach.
Nan and Kathleen came in to see what the noise was about.
"He'll kill himself!" said Kathleen when she saw. "He'll hit the window and die!"
"Relax," said Nan. "It looks like he's just sitting there. Go close all the windows and doors in the house so he can't get out."
Kathleen ran off to do as she was told. I tried to slink under the sofa, but Nan grabbed me -quite painfully- by the fur on the back of my neck.
"Oh no you don't," she said. "Bad cat!" She clutched me to her chest, holding my paws in such a way that I couldn't scratch her. “Outside you go,” she said, carrying me towards the kitchen.
Before Nan could boot me out of the house, the study door flew open and the man of the house, Kathleen's grandfather, bellowed, "I need the bird!"
"Your cat just let the bird loose!" Nan bellowed back.
"Well then catch it! And for the love of God, don't you dare let it get hurt. That pigeon's worth more to me than any one of you. In the meantime, bring me the cat, then."
So Nan grumbled about useless, lazy wizards and carried me towards the study rather than the yard door. I struggled even harder to get away, but Nan had me clamped tight. Into the study we went.
I disliked The Man's study, almost as much as I disliked The Man himself. He talked too loudly and smells like dead things. Not good, fresh dead things that can be eaten, nor even cold dead things that you can play with, or that Nan freezes to cook later. He smelled like rotten dead things. The stench clung to him all over, even his clothes, like he'd been rolling in them. Like a dog. He's a wizard like Gerald, but he didn't understand cats and even if he did, no self-respecting cat would choose to talk to him.
Nan tried to put me in the middle of the pentagram etched into the floor. I bit and scratched and hissed and spat and yowled up a storm. It took them both to get me into the pentagram, but in I did go. The Man had set a spell up so I was stuck inside the markings. I hissed. At least I managed to tear strips out of them before I was trapped.
"Damned cat!" said The Man. "The other one never gave me so much trouble. Next time we drug it."
"We," said Nan sourly. She had gotten the brunt of the scathing because she'd been the one closest. "Right."
"Alright, you'll be the one drugging it. Now get out of here, I don't need your aura jacking up my spells."
"I'll be helping Kathleen with homework if you need me," she said.
"Yes yes, just go." He waved a hand and she scowled and left. “And catch that pigeon!” he hollered after her. “I’ll need it next!”
Nan slammed the door closed and The Man started with the spells.
I hate it when The Man does magic on me. Usually, he tries to pick apart my nine lives so he can have extras. I'm not sure whether it's so he can copy them and we both have extra lives, or if he wants to steal them outright. In any case, the joke's on him: I only have five lives left. That's why when he does his magic by nines, it never works. I think that if he had known about my only having five, he would have figured out how to take them by now.
Other times he just needs me to hang around because cats are amazingly magic creatures by nature, and ginger cats doubly so. Having me sit in a pentagram while he works can make whatever spell he's up to several times more powerful than it normally would be. There was a cat before me here, but he'd long since gone. I knew his name was Blackie because sometimes Kathleen would call me that when she wasn't paying attention.
This time, it seemed he needed me just for the boost. I stood stuck in the pentagram while he chanted. The magic in the air made my fur stick and clump and tangle uncomfortably, as though I'd got into cooking oil. I tried my best to wash myself off, but there's no use trying to lick away clumps when there's magic involved. The best you can do is wait for the spell to be over. I tried, all the same, though.
After The Man had finished chanting, he started making potions, mixing smelly oils and powders together until they bubbled and smoked. I complained about the smell, loudly.
"Quiet, cat," he said. "This charm's almost done. Quit your bitching."
I ignored him, of course. It wouldn't do for me to start doing what humans told me on the first try. Eventually he finished the potions and the spell keeping me stuck in the pentagram vanished, and I vanished too. I shot up the steps, to the door.
Kathleen had left her bedroom door open. I went inside and hid under her bed for the next twenty minutes or so, time I spent trying to groom the stink of The Man’s magic out of me. Once that was done, I decided I’d like to issue a little bit of payback.
The door to The Man’s bedroom was closed, as usual, so I couldn’t go in and widdle on or claw his clothes. However, the door to the library next to his room was open enough for me to nudge my way through. Usually, The Man puts some baubles or odds and ends on top of the writing desk in there, and I take great pleasure in batting them around and dropping them onto the floor. Sometimes there are papers, and those are always fun to roll on and scatter.
I hopped onto the desk and found a handful of silver balls, uniform in size (a little smaller than my paw and thus perfect batting size), and utterly nondescript except that they were shiny and smelled like magic. I spent the next few minutes playing with them. At the end of those few minutes, all but three of the balls were thoroughly stuck beneath the book cases, and I was trying to pick up one of the remaining ones with my mouth (harder to do than it sounds as cat teeth aren't any good with metal)
I didn't hear The Man arrive until he yelled, "Dammit, cat!"
He snatched me up and pried the bauble out of my mouth. He cursed a lot and tossed me out the door. I landed on my feet, of course, and immediately started licking myself indignantly. The Man did not care. He slammed the door shut, and even after it was closed, I could hear him moving furniture and cursing.
I sat in the hallway, grooming, pleased to have gotten such a reaction out of him, and I was still there when he left the room a minute later.
“Stupid cat,” he said. He pointed at me and I felt an instant, painful jolt. I ran blindly down the hall while he laughed behind me. I hid beneath the sofa in the living room, where I stayed until dinnertime.
* * * * *
There’s not much that can convince a frightened cat to leave the safety of a sofa, but hunger is a strong incentive. I crept out from beneath the sofa and trotted into the kitchen. Although my internal clock told me it was dinnertime, there was still plenty of summer light outside.
Although one of the jobs The Man paid Nan to do was cook, the most she did was boil water so Kathleen could have packaged soups. This was because Nan couldn't cook to save her life. I hadn't been there to see her first actual attempts at cooking when she'd been hired, but sometimes she and Kathleen would joke about it when The Man wasn't around. The Man never ate at home, anyways, so it was Kathleen and Nan's secret. More often than not, Kathleen had run of whatever she liked from the fridge and pantry.
Kathleen was there already, making herself a sandwich.
“Kathleeeeeeeen,” I mewed pathetically. “Feeeed meeee.”
And, since she is a good little human, she did.
After dinner, I decided it was probably time to go see Gerald. How long had it been? A day at least. He must have been missing me by then; how could he not? I scratched at the door until Kathleen got the hint and let me outside, then I started towards my first house. It was on my way to my first house that I ran into the cat walking in the road.
She was in the middle of the street, looking wildly around and saying, “Hello? Hello? Anyone? Can someone please help me?”
“Get out of the road!” I called. “What do you think you’re doing? You’re going to get hit.”
“I don’t-“ she looked down and seemed to realize for the first time where she was. “Oh!” she ran over to me. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize. And you! You’re a- I mean you’re a cat. And you can talk! But, I suppose that doesn’t mean anything now. . . “ She looked at herself, and then sat, dejected.
“Yes,” I said. There was something about this Cat that felt entirely off. It took me longer than I like to see what it was. She was gray and tabby and obviously, miserable. Everything about her screamed "Misery!"
It was also Marion. Even as a cat, she couldn't be anything but Marion.
"Marion," I said. "You're a cat."
"How did you know- Maisy? Maisy is that you? Oh no- Maisy, you can talk!"
"Just be glad I can recognize you. Marion, what happened?"
"It was Mr. Achleneck," she said. "I went in for the interview and he turned me into a cat." Her ears flattened angrily. "I bet there wasn't even an open position!"
“How did you get here?”
"I ran, and I kept on running and I was hoping to find my way home, but I got hopelessly lost and now I'm here and though it looks familiar, I have no idea where I actually am. Everything looks so different from here, and I'm usually in a car, anyways, so normally it's all zipping past. And oh what am I going to tell Mother?”
And if she had been human just then, she would have burst into tears, but since we cats are far above such things, she simply sat and was miserable.
I was loathe to have my two humans meet- it's simply unprofessional and can lead to all kinds of confusion. But Marion obviously needed help and Gerald seemed like the one to give it. Besides, if Marion stayed a cat that would mean it would be four cats sharing Mother rather than three cats sharing two humans, and sharing is hard at the best of times. Marion needed to be human again.
“Come on,” I told her, batting her with my paw. “Follow me.”
“Where are we going?”
“To my other human. He’ll know what to do.” There was short brick wall draped with flowers by the sidewalk. If we cut across that yard, it would take us closer to Gerald’s. I hopped onto the fence and waited for Marion. It took her two tries, but she managed.
“Gerald,” I said. “He’s a wizard. He’ll know what to do. That’s their job.”
Gerald’s house wasn’t too far away- I like to keep my humans relatively close together so I don’t have to walk so far. I led Marion through the maze of other people’s backyards and soon we came across Gerald’s little rented house.
“How long have you been living here?” Marion said as we approached the little house. “Is this where you go when we let you out?”
“Sometimes. I recently acquired another house, as well. No self-respecting cat has only one set of humans, Marion.”
And she thought about this quietly to herself as I led us through the catflap.
I don't much care for Gerald's work on the grounds that it takes his attention away from me. It's one thing for me to ignore him, it's quite another for him to ignore me. But I do like sitting on top of the parts that get hot when they're on too long, and sometimes they have lights that blink, and those are always fun to play with. But today he was crouching over a plain looking metal box with wires coming out.
“Hello, Nora,” he said without looking.
“Nora?" Marion said.
"That's what Gerald calls me. All my humans call me different things. Gerald! Gerald, we need your help.”
"Go away, Nora," he said before I'd even got close to him. "I need to fix this for Mr. Achleneck by tomorrow."
"Achleneck!" meowed Marion. "Robert Achleneck?"
Gerald turned at the voice of the new cat. "Nora, who's this?"
"You can understand me?" she said.
"Wizard," Gerald and I both said at once. "How do you know Achleneck?"
"He's the one who turned me into a cat!"
"That's ridiculous," he said. "Why would Mr. Achleneck intentionally turn you into a cat?"
"I don't know!" Marion said. “I was at a job interview, but he kept asking questions about my mother and when I asked about the position, he threw a spell on me and I was a cat. I ran away before he could do anything more and I tried to get home but I got lost and found Maisy and now I don't know what to do!"
It was clear Gerald didn’t really believe her, but at the same time he couldn’t think of another reason why a strange cat would claim to have been a shape changed human and know the name of his boss.
“Listen,” he said. “It’s late right now. He’s probably at home. Tomorrow morning, first thing, I’ll take you down there and we can all have a talk about this, alright? Would that be good for you?”
Marion drooped. “I suppose there's not really much choice, is there?"
There really wasn't. Marion spent the night on the sofa- though not on my side, I made sure, and Gerald spent all night looking up spells to undo shapeshifting spells. They both fell asleep fairly early.
* * * * *
The next morning we went to see Achleneck.
At first Gerald wanted to talk to Achleneck on his own, but Marion insisted that she go because she was the one turned into a cat. Then, of course, I had to do because I wanted to go. After all, who knows what kind of trouble they’d get into without me.
Gerald insisted on driving us to Mr. Achleneck's office. Marion was comfortable enough with this, but Gerald had to put me in a carrier, I was so upset.
“I hate this car!” I yowled.
"Would you rather I left you at home?”
“No,” I growled. My stomach flopped and flipped on the inside. Cars smell so terrible and things outside move too fast: I don’t know how humans can handle them.
"Really, Nora! It's not like we're going to the vet."
"You've taken her to the vet?" Marion said from the seat beside the carrier.
"Yes. Every year since she was a kitten. Why? Left or right on Elm?"
"Left. We never could afford too. I always felt so guilty about it- this is the street! It's the building on the left."
So Gerald got out and let us out and we followed him into the office building. The receptionist wasn't happy about us, but Gerald said we were seeing-eye cats and, since he said it in the oily, convincing way laced with magic only wizards can, she believed him. Then he said he had an appointment with Achleneck and she believed that, too, and lead us straight to his office, up dozens of stairs, all the way at the top floor.
Gerald knocked once and then opened the door. Foul smelling air came out of the room in a wave. I sneezed and growled.
“What is it?” said Marion.
“I know that smell!” I said. “Gerald, be careful!”
Kathleen’s grandfather was waiting behind the large desk. “Yes?” he said, looking at us. Or rather, he was looking at Gerald; he barely glanced at Marion and me. If he recognized me, he didn’t say it.
"Who are you? I don't have any appointments. Why did you bring cats?" He got up from the chair and squinted at Gerald. "Ahh," he said, eyes brightening up. "A fellow practitioner, I see."
"Uh, if that's what you'd like to call it." Gerald reeked of discomfort. Apparently, he disliked The Man's death smell as much as I did. "Mr. Achleneck-"
"Call me Robert, please. Sit down, take a seat. Do you smoke? Would you like a cigar? Or something to drink, perhaps? It's not often I find someone else who works the craft. You're maybe the third person I've met. What was your name?"
Gerald sat, holding Marion on his lap, but that was all. I walked around the office, looking at things. "Gerald Nolwake. I'm sorry to bother you, Mr. Achleneck, but-“
"Have we met before this?"
“It’s just that you sound familiar. Have we met?”
“I'm the- uh- technical manager. I fix computers. I work in your other building, but we haven't met before-"
"I need to do more thorough screening, then. If I had known I was hiring a fellow practitioner, you can bet I wouldn't be wasting your talents on computers! Where do your talents lie?"
I went to Achleneck’s desk. While the room reeked of the man's death magic, but the man himself smelled excited. Part of it was physical smell, and part of it was the way his aura bubbled and fizzed outside his skin.
"What sort of magic do you do?"
Gerald shifted uncomfortably in the chair. "I don't really have one specific area-"
"So a Jack of all trades, then? That must be handy! How do you do it? Potions? Incantations? Charms? "
"Mr. Achleneck!" Gerald blurted. "I talk to cats, and this cat says her name is Marion Sift and that you turned her into a cat when she was here for a job interview this afternoon."
Achleneck smiled and for a moment, he looked distinctly catlike himself. "She speaks the truth."
That just took all the wind out of Gerald's sails. "Oh. Well, can you change her back?"
"I'm afraid I can't do that."
The Man who was Achleneck smiled. "Because she's a hostage. Her mother will return what's mine, or else I'll kill her. Frankly, it's a lot easier to get away with killing a cat than a human. Even if her mother paid up, I had intended to take her life to supplement my own. I'm glad you brought her back, though. I don't know if she has only one life or nine now, but either way, they should do."
Marion began to growl. I could tell she was trying not to, but it’s hard stopping a cat body from doing what it wants to do.
Gerald looked flabbergasted. “You’re joking.”
“No, I’m not.”
“But that’s murder! That’s necromancy-“
“No,” he said. “It’s simple retribution. Her family stole something of great importance to me, now I am simply returning the favor.”
“I’m not going to let you do this,” said Gerald, standing up.
“What?” said Achleneck, smirking. “Will you report me to the police? A crazy man who says he talks to cats?” While he’d been talking, Achlenckeck has been slowly digging through a drawer on the side of his desk, out of view to Gerald.
“Gerald!” I yowled. “It’s a tr-“
Achleneck took a silver ball from his drawer that I recognized as the ones I’d been playing with back at the study and threw it at Gerald. There was the stink of strong magic and a puff of smoke and then, right where Gerald had been standing a second before, was another cat. Gerald was as lanky as a cat as he was a human and almost as scruffy. He was brown-black and patchy and looked confused.
"Oh damn!" Marion said.
"Pathetic," I said. "Humans make terrible cats."
Gerald the cat blinked. "What-?" he tried to stand up, but since he was only trying to use his back two legs, he wound up toppling over. “What?”
Achleneck went around the desk and grabbed him by the back of the neck. Gerald went all tense and started to growl. "Sorry about this," Achleneck said, picking him up. "But I can't have you mucking around while I'm still in the middle of things. Maybe after we can have a talk about your future here at Achlen Enterprises-"
Marion, who had been cowering under the sofa the entire time, suddenly shot out and launched herself at Achleneck's legs. I joined her, and together we clawed, tearing strips along his pant legs.
Achleneck shouted and kicked us and threw sleeping magic. Marion and Gerald went drowsy and stupid, but I'm a ginger cat and ten times as magical as them by nature, and I was already used to The Man's magic. I ran around the desk and, as he was going after me, I turned the corner and went invisible. He cursed quietly, but didn't bother looking too hard. He went to his desk and pressed a button.
“Mrs. Kensing?” he said. “Can you please bring me a sack?”
Achleneck must have made requests like that often, as Mrs. Kensing didn’t question him and a few minutes later, she came and dropped off a burlap bag, and then left. He loaded Gerald and Marion into the sack and I realized then that he would be taking them back to his house. Then I realized that without Gerald to drive me, there was no way I would be able to make it to any of my homes on my own from here: I had no idea where the office was in relation to anything important.
I turned myself visible, yowled, and walked out into the middle of the room, stopping behind Achleneck.
The things I do for these people!
He threw sleeping magic on me again, and though I was still immune, I pretended to fall asleep. I allowed him to pick me up, even though in meant letting him stuff me in the sack with Marion and Gerald.
The Man gave no hint that he recognized me. All he said was, "At least one's a ginger. That's always good news."
Then he lifted up the sack and left the room.
* * * * *
I had thought the ride in Gerald's car had been miserable, but it was nothing compared to the ride back to Achleneck's house. Marion and Gerald slept the entire ride, the lucky ducks. I had to be awake and have them toppling around on me in the sack. When the car finally stopped and Achleneck took us inside, I was about ready to start tearing chunks out of whoever was unlucky enough to open the sack.
"Nan!" The Man bellowed. "Have you caught the pigeon yet?"
"Not yet," I heard her say. "It's still up by the window. I think it's stunned itself stupid."
“Well forget it for now,” he said. “I’ve got some business in the lab I need help with.”
He carried us across the house and now the steps and into the study and, after a lot of disorienting movement from outside, the sack opened. The person unlucky enough to open the bag turned out to be Nan. She wasn't nearly fast enough, and in a whir of claws and fur, I was gone, hidden beneath a table holding the smelly potions.
"I thought you said they were drugged!" Nan yelled. I could see her clutching her face where I'd scratched her.
"They should've been," he said.
"One's gone now," said Nan. "Somewhere in the boxes, I think."
“Forget it,” he said. “I’ll catch it later. I think that one might be an actual cat.”
“Excuse me?” said Nan.
“Nothing. None of your concern. Pile the other ones into that crate, then get into the circle. I need to make a call."
"Oh no," said Nan. "With all due respect, you don't pay me enough for that, Mr. Achleneck." She did dump Gerald and Marion into the crate, though.
"Nonsense, it's perfectly safe."
"Oh?" she said. "What about the cat before, huh? Remember I was the one who had to clean up its innards from the walls? Was that one perfectly safe, too?" It took me a moment to realize they were talking about the black cat who came before me. My ears perked up.
"Which is why I need you to do it," he said reasonably. "It was too much for the cat. Humans will be fine."
"No, sorry. Use another cat- you've got spares now. I'll be doing laundry." Nan huffed out the door. Achleneck cursed and, since he was a wizard, the curses came out like colored, smelly smoke and bits of lightning that made the air frizz and my fur stand on end.
"Mister Achleneck?" Kathleen poked her head into the study. "Are you all right?"
Achleneck perked up immediately. "Katherine! Come in here! There's a little project I'm working on and I think you may be able to help. Close the door too, will you?"
She stepped in, closing the door. "What is it?" I bolted out from under the tables and leapt into Kathleen's arms. "Saskia!" she said. "I've been looking all over for you!"
"You know that cat?"
"Grandp- Mister Achleneck, I've had Saskia for weeks."
I purred and allowed Kathleen to pet me while Achleneck looked confused, then thoughtful. "No matter. Katherine-"
"I need you to step into the circle. I need to make a call."
I felt Kathleen stiffen, and she hugged me a little more tightly. I hissed, not at her, but at Achleneck. She smelled like fear. “Do I have to?”
“Do it, Kathleen, or I’ll take your cat away. I’ll send it to the pound.”
Kathleen dropped me and went into the circle. I went back beneath the desk in the corner.
I didn’t see the things that Achleneck summoned, but I could smell them. They smelled like smoke and fire and hate, and I could hear them laughing. Their presence filled the room and it was bad enough that their hatred for everything was so strong I could feel it, but just being near them made me begin to hate everything, too. I watched as Kathleen twisted and screamed and, when they had gotten proper control over her, how she smiled and talked in their voices. I couldn’t understand what they said, but The Man did, and he talked back to them in the same language.
When Achleneck and the things inside Kathleen were done speaking- and it was some time before they were done as after everything said, he went and wrote it down in a big leatherbound book of notes- he clapped his hands and they were suddenly gone. It was as though all of the bad air had been sucked out of the room and we were suddenly able to breathe again. Kathleen fell down in the circle and I ran to her, purring up a storm. She wrapped her arms around me and said, softly,
“Can I go now, Mr. Achleneck?”
He barely noticed her. He was too busy rereading his notes. “Hmm? Oh, yes. Go on, go clean your room or something. Leave me be.”
She picked me up and we left the study. She walked us to her room, a where she went to bed and didn’t get up for a very long time after.