George Ellison’s SUV chirped behind him as he locked it and walked through the parking lot to his building. The headset of his cell phone glowed faintly blue by his ear. “Try ruling the world,” he said.
Susanna’s voice sounded as though it was inside his head with him. “I know. Maybe tomorrow, then.”
The phone crackled slightly as he entered the elevator. “Sure. Of course. I’ll take you someplace nice.” He strode into his company’s headquarters and snapped his fingers at his secretary. She jumped to her feet and followed him.
“Sounds good,” Susanna said. “Okay, big shot. Go sell ice to Eskimos.”
“Will do.” He ended the call just as he stepped into his office and rounded on the secretary. “Speak to me,” he said as he sat down heavily.
“I have your messages here, sir.”
George picked up a rubber band and stretched it between his hands. “Anything worth my time?”
The rubber band popped and flew towards the door. “Oops. Would you get that for me?” He admired the view when she picked up the rubber band. Between those heels and that skirt, the girl was a walking distraction. Which was why he had not fired her yet. “So, two important messages.”
“Yes, sir,” she said and put the rubber band back in the pile on his desk. “The board of directors is requesting a meeting.”
“What the hell for? I don’t want to spend an afternoon with those wind bags.”
“That’s what the second message is, sir. Lewis, over at Bank of California, has called three times today.” She tapped a pen against the clip board in her hands. “He says you never returned his calls from last week, either.”
George lounged back in his office chair. “Tragic bore. What does he expect?”
“He says you are late on repaying the loans from building North Acacia.”
George launched himself forward and slammed both fists on his desk. Objects jumped and clattered on top of it. “You tell that son of a bitch the next time he calls that I will pay him when the place opens, just like we agreed.”
“Yes, sir, I did.” She hesitated and looked down at her clip board. “Only he says that since the loans specify the opening date as July and it is December now–”
“I know what month it is, damn it.”
“He insists that you are overdue on beginning payments. Sir, if you don’t mind my saying–”
“Well, I do mind,” George pouted.
“I don’t think he will stop calling until he speaks to you personally. The board is getting nervous as well.”
George thought for a moment. He clicked his tongue against his teeth. “Get out.”
“I’ll handle it.” He pointed to the door. “Now get out.”
She gave a slight bow. “Very good, sir.” She shut the door behind her.
George unlocked his brief case. “The name Ellison used to mean something,” he muttered. “I need to remind them.” He took out a folder of papers on the North Acacia development. “I’m the biggest thing in real estate development in three states. They’ve all gotten cocky. They think they can push George Ellison around.”
He took the building plans for South Acacia from his desk drawer. He spread them out. It would be another eighteen months before it was even close to ready. At the rate those bastards were going, they would pull out of the project before then. “I just need one good turnaround,” he said. “That’ll show them. Inspire a little confidence.”
He flipped open a notebook. In block print was a list of potential projects. But which one, he thought, which one would impress them?
In the solarium, Heather clapped her hands. “Can I have everyone’s attention, please?” Around the room, cats turned bright eyes toward her. “Is everyone here?” There was a murmured chorus she took to mean yes.
“Thank you all for gathering here. I know you all have things you would rather be doing.” The cats looked at each other. Heather smirked. Maybe not as many pressing engagements as she anticipated.
“As you may know, a few days ago, there was a human here examining the house. The porch has a termite infestation, but so far the rest of the house is safe. So today, his company will be out to treat it.”
All the cats started speaking at once, to one another and to Heather. There was a din of high, mewing voices. “Just listen to me,” Heather pleaded. “I have been assured that their methods pose no danger to us. We don’t have to move out and they won’t be tenting the house.”
Heather braced herself. Now came the hard part. “However, they will need access to the house. And something like six dozen cats in a single house, even a large one like ours, is going to draw attention. Attention that we can ill afford.”
There was a mutinous whisper going around the room. Heather had no idea how she would convince them to go along with this idea. “So I’m going to need every able-bodied cat to temporarily relocate to the woods outside.”
The whisper became shouts of dismay and rebellion. “We can’t stay outside all night. We have kittens to think about,” someone shouted.
“It won’t be all night. Just during the day, while they work. It won’t take long. But there’s a lot of house to cover and I can’t risk them seeing all of you.”
“Couldn’t we just move to different rooms in the house? We can track their movements and avoid them,” a cat suggested.
“I don’t dare try. If something goes wrong, it will be even worse if they find a room of wall-to-wall cats. I would sooner let everyone stay scattered than risk that.”
“But what about the gray-whiskers?”
“Like I said, able-bodied cats only. I want all the sick and elderly moved into my office. I can explain a few charity cases easily enough.”
“Charity cases?” Another cat repeated, sounding outraged.
“That’s just the story, okay. Look, everyone,” she said and crouched down to talk to them. “I need you to see my position here. I am doing everything I can to protect the secrecy of the House of Cats. And yes, that is more important than the inconvenience of making you spend the day outside.”
“Who will protect us? The coyotes and bobcats keep their distance after the taser incident,” Dorian said. Heather had no idea what the taser incident might have been, but she rather liked the sound of it. “But we also don’t tempt them. Only the hunters venture far from the house alone. The rest of us travel together–”
“And you’ll be together today. What kind of creature is going to be stupid enough to approach six dozen cats at once?” Heather said.
“Could we take cat’s bane?” Annabelle asked.
“The woods aren’t dense enough to hide that many people. Which is why we’re doing this today instead of tomorrow, when the moon will be in effect. Cats will be harder to spot.” Heather checked the clock on the wall. Nearly ten. “We need to move now. I want everyone settled down before they get here.”
She opened the sliding doors into the yard and watched cat after cat leave the house. Mothers carried their kittens, who wanted to romp and play. The younger cats mostly accepted the experience as just another opportunity to play outside. The older cats seemed resigned to the humiliation of being kicked out of their own home. Heather thought they were being rather more dramatic about it than necessary.
She jogged up to her office. Soft beds were set up for all the cats too sick or weak to go outside, ten in total. Evergreen had organized the movement of them from their usual rooms. “Is everything ready?” Heather asked.
“Yes. I think they’re as comfortable as we can make them,” Evergreen answered. “But stay with them as much as you can. They’re used to constant company.”
“I’ll do my best, but I’m going to have to talk to the people arriving. Go catch up with the others. I’ll be out to check on everyone later.” Heather checked the clock in there as well. The exterminators could arrive at any minute. She hated waiting. She eased herself to the floor by one of the older cats and started a quiet conversation, moving from cat to cat as she did.
Carlisle watched a koi swim across the pond and under the tiny waterfall coming from the higher one. In that pond, a fountain sent arcs of water into the air. Beyond that, cars trickled past on the street. Behind him, voices traveled softly from the shops along the promenade. A breeze blew light spray from the fountain across his face. A cup of coffee appeared in front of him. Topaz smiled down at him when he took it then sat down on the bench next to him. Topaz slipped his hand into Carlisle’s and squeezed.
“Whatcha thinking?” Topaz asked.
“Are you sure Heather will be all right by herself? I have to admit, I feel rather guilty.”
Topaz sipped his drink and licked a line of foam from his upper lip. “It’s not our fault she scheduled them to come out today. You asked a week ago to take today off.”
“I didn’t ask for the day off, precisely.” His coffee gave off a spiraling column of steam in the cool morning air. Thick clouds glowed, lit from behind with sunlight like lampshades over the world.
Topaz rolled his eyes. “Sure. You just announced that you would be going out.”
“Maybe I asked if she had any particular need of me,” Carlisle admitted.
“Uh huh. That’s what I thought. The first step is admitting you have a problem.”
“Very well. I promised no work today,” Carlisle said. He stood up and wrapped his scarf around his neck once more. It was too cold to sit still for long. “So what do you want to do instead?”
“We should have ice cream for breakfast,” Topaz said solemnly.
Carlisle chuckled. “I don’t believe the ice cream parlor is open this early.”
Undeterred, Topaz said, “So lunch then.”
Carlisle tapped the toes of his shoes on the concrete pathway to shake off the dew from the grass. “And until then?”
“We could go ice skating.” Topaz pointed to the tiny rink set up at the far end of the lawn. It was decked out in red ribbons and bells. Tinny Christmas music played over the speakers. “They just set it up last weekend. It could be fun.”
Children shouted to one another as they banked off the high railing around the raised rink. On the side, employees rented out ice skates. “I cannot begin to describe the horror I am imagining.”
“Oh, come on. Changing-cats, hello?” Topaz lowered his voice when Carlisle shushed him. He still grinned, full of mischief. “Preternaturally agile compared to humans. We’ll knock their stripes off.”
“Have you ever actually ice skated before?” Carlisle asked.
“No. But that’s why it’ll be fun. New experience.” Topaz must have seen Carlisle’s reluctance and he turned on him with a pout. “Come on, let’s try it.”
Carlisle sighed. “How can I deny that face? Let’s go see. At least it isn’t crowded yet.”
“Yeah! This will be so cool!” Topaz hurried ahead then doubled back when Carlisle took too long. “Do you think you can do a back flip while skating?”
“I don’t do back flips when on solid ground.” They reached the ticket seller and Carlisle took several bills from a bundle in his pocket. “I am certainly not going to try now,” he said as they moved on to the rental skates.
Topaz laced up his skates haphazardly in his hurry to get out on the ice. Carlisle made him sit and tighten them properly. “Do you think I can?” Topaz asked while enduring the delay.
“I would honestly prefer if you restrained yourself in that particular aspect,” Carlisle said as he tested his balance. Topaz had been right about that at least; balancing on the edge of a blade was dead easy for a cat.
They stepped through a gate and onto the ice. Carlisle could feel the subtle changes in the quality of the ice, smooth and grainy and ridged in turned where previous skaters had marked the surface. The feeling was not unlike the sensitivity of one’s paws.
He held Topaz’s arm at the elbow under the pretense of steadying himself. “Let’s not make too much of a spectacle of ourselves, shall we?” He whispered. “I don’t want to come home with broken bones or our faces in the local newspaper.” He squeezed Topaz’s arm and released him to glide away, weaving in and out of the awkward humans with showy ease. “But do let’s have a little fun.” Topaz grinned and took up the challenge, chasing after Carlisle through the crowd.
Rune was not going to take any catnip. He stood on his hind legs to look out the tiny circle of window in the attic’s secret compartment, over the tops of trees and beyond to the city far below. He had never meant it to go this far. All he had wanted was a way to avoid changing under the moon. It was never supposed to be an all the time thing. Now he hid from his friends for days and spent the rest of the time moody and sick. He could not go more than a handful of hours with out it, less when the Leo moon drew near.
Rune sank back and watched the pile of catnip in the corner as though he expected it to jump up and bite him. He did not like who he was when he ate it. So he would not eat it. It was that simple. He could smell it from across the tiny room. If he did not have to see anyone else, did not even have to see himself, how bad would it be to change? It had been so long. Maybe long enough. He paced the length of the room.
He stopped when he realized his pacing had brought him closer to the pile of dry leaves and hard button flowers. He sniffed and he could feel the heat and rattle and noise of the plant in his body just from that. There was a promise in it: I will let you forget and I will make everything go silent.
So Rune chewed morosely on the catnip he had crammed in his mouth with such initial enthusiasm, frenzied after just a few moments of restraint. “You’re a real loser,” he said. In the privacy of the attic’s secret compartment, he need not fear being overheard. “Totally pathetic.”
The sound of chewing filled his skull. His ears rang. He shook his head, trying to dispel the noise. He shook so hard, his head hit the nearby wall. The blow sent a flash of white blankness through his head and gave him a moment of clarity.
There were strange shapes in his vision, like gnats flying around the room. He batted at them and chased them around the room. They were impossible to catch but he tried until his heart raced. He stopped, unable to go on, and gasped for breath. The tiny room was so stuffy. There was no air.
Then the high really hit him. Color and sound and phantom sensations exploded in his mind. He purred and mewled and rolled on his back to bat at the gnats, which became butterflies. His body chanted cat, cat, cat. It forgot that there was such a thing as humans, forgot that it could ever take any other shape. The body forgot and the mind went with it. Rune could think of nothing but the strange sensory delights that assaulted him. Everything was fine. Would always be fine.
But no high ever lasts. In time, his mind trickled back into his head. It brought memories, the alien faces of humans that grew familiar again as still more memory returned. The memories were worse as he came down than when he was sober. Rune covered his head with his paws. He scratched at his face, trying to scrub out those memories.
“Go away!” He knocked his head against the floor where he lay. The pain granted him a second of reprieve, so he did it again. “I don’t care, so leave me alone,” he pleaded to the empty room.
He rested with his eyes closed and tried to just concentrate on his breathing. In. What an ugly thing I’ve created. Out. She depended on me. In. That was someone else. Out. The blame is mine alone. In. I had a responsibility. Out. I never want to see them again.
He yowled and clawed his face. He left bloody trails through his fur. It was never going to end, he was sure. This would be the time that killed him. This time he had gone too far. He was sure. He wanted to lie down and die. If he could just get a little quiet, everything would be okay. Just a minute of silence in his head, that was all he asked.
He wound down slowly. The shakes left him. His vision cleared. The hallucinations, faces painted against the walls, faded. The voices went silent. Everything left after that was a monster of his own making. He breathed deeply, chest tight.
“I need help,” he whispered.
Heather hovered by the door to her office. “Well? Are we okay?”
The man in the white uniform nodded. “All clear.”
“Good. I want to disturb these folks as little as possible,” she said indicating the cats watching warily from inside. “Thanks for your understanding.”
“Not a problem,” he said and shut the door behind himself and his team members.
“Then if you don’t need me for anything else,” Heather said as she followed them downstairs and out to the patio, “I have some work of my own to do on the property. You have the run of the place.”
“Sure thing, ma’am.”
Heather made her way, as casually as she could, into the back yard. She puttered with cleaning up carpet shreds from the cat trees and pulling weeds from the garden. She could hear the exterminators drilling into the wood of the porch.
They had explained the bait stations that would go in the attic and back rooms and under the porch and the orange oil that would be injected into the wood of the porch, the worst damaged area. She had tried to keep track, but it did not mean much to her. And all the time her mind was on the cats — her people, she thought hesitantly — out in the woods on their own.
She finally made her way across the yard, checking over her shoulder too many times to be inconspicuous at all, and entered the woods. Dorian and Phyllo met her just inside. “How goes everything?” Heather asked.
“We have a patrol monitoring our perimeter and guards at the four points. We’re okay.” Dorian reported.
“Did you bring us a picnic, then?” Phyllo asked. He had a rough, street urchin sort of look about him, no matter how well-fed he might be and his cream coat had a permanent layer of dust on it.
“Sorry. That might blow our cover, me taking a picnic basket into the woods by myself.”
“How ’bout just a little something for me then? Smuggled in your pocket, perhaps,” he said, standing with his front paws on her leg to nose at her pants. “I don’t mind a bit of lint and I won’t say a word to the others.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Heather said and left them to move deeper into the shadows of the trees. She caught glimpses in the darkness of bright eyes and dark bodies moving like liquid shadow. The cats knew how to hide well. Up ahead, a familiar tuxedo cat spoke in hushed and hurried tones to another that Heather did not know personally.
“Ask around then. See if anyone saw him come out. He wouldn’t just leave, you know that,” Dopple said with increasing anger.
“I did ask around,” the other cat protested. “No one has seen him at all.”
“What’s the matter? Is someone missing?” Heather asked.
“It’s Rune,” Dopple said. She kept lifting her front paws up from the pine needle bedding of the woods. They must have been painful, more so than usual, on the prickly material. “I don’t know where he is.”
“And no one saw him come out of the house?”
“No. I think he’s still in there.”
“But I had the cats do a sweep to make sure all the gray-whiskers were accounted for. They should have found him then,” Heather said.
Dopple looked torn. She cleaned her whiskers fitfully. “He has a place he likes to go to be alone. He might be hiding there,” Dopple finally grumbled.
Heather came to a sickening realization. “Was he at the meeting this morning?”
“I didn’t see him.” Dopple swayed her head, indicating it was neither here nor there to her. “I don’t think so.”
“Don’t you understand? He doesn’t know that humans are going to be in the house. If he notices them–”
“He’ll try to kill them,” Dopple said, finishing the thought.
“And he’ll get himself killed trying. Dopple, where is this place? I have to get him out,” Heather said in a rush.
“It’s in the attic. There’s a hidden button on the baseboard. It opens a door and leads to a secret room. He’s been going up there more than usual lately. That’s where he’ll be,” Dopple said with enough certainty to satisfy Heather.
Heather spun on her heel and ran, dodging around thick tree roots blocking the path. She slammed into the sliding door in the solarium before she could get it open. She did not bother to close it behind her. She took the stairs two at a time. She had to get him out before the workers came into the house. She had to get him out while she had a chance.
Carlisle stopped and looked in at the display of cell phones behind the huge glass windows of the shop. Topaz, at his side, popped the last bite of his ice cream cone into his mouth. “Whathup?” Topaz mumbled.
“Do you think we should get phones?”
“Cell phones? I didn’t think you knew they existed,” Topaz said, nudging him playfully.
“Despite your assertions otherwise, I have ventured out of the House more recently than 1973.” Beyond the front display, customers bundled in coats and hats mingled with employees dressed for summer in polo shirts.
“I don’t think Rune would ever stand for it.”
Carlisle grimaced. “Rune is no longer leading the House of Cats.”
Topaz held his hands up in surrender. “And I both know and respect that. But you have to admit, he has influence in the House even now.”
“Yes. I wake each morning half expecting everyone to be as out of their minds on catnip as he is.” The look on Topaz’s face was reproach enough. Carlisle sighed. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. He has a problem and needs help, not ridicule.”
“What would we use them for, anyway?” Topaz asked, watching the preprogrammed video clips playing on the screen of a giant mockup of a phone. “Games?”
“Think of today. If we had phones, I could just call Heather to check that everything is going well there.”
“Yeah, see, that is exactly why I wouldn’t want a phone. Wasn’t it nice to get away from all that for a while? Let someone else take care of things?”
“Of course. Very nice. But for emergencies.”
Topaz shrugged, obviously grown bored with the topic. “I guess. I think you need to give Heather more credit though. She is, after all, an adult. She should be able to handle even an emergency without you talking her through it.”
“Objectively, I know that.” He let Topaz lead him away from the shop, rejoining the ever-increasing stream of people on the promenade. “But after being involved in the day-to-day affairs of the House for so long, I find it rather difficult to leave well enough alone.”
“What about a land line that everybody could use?”
“How many other cats will have access to phones? Who are they going to call?”
“We could get pizza delivered,” Topaz said, pointing up at the pizza parlor’s sign under which they were passing.
“You are hopeless.”
“Hey, speaking of hopeless and winning the prize for most awkward transition ever–”
Carlisle shook his head. “This should be good.”
“I haven’t seen Rune taking any catnip in at least a week.”
The hope in his voice was enough to break Carlisle’s heart. “Topaz…”
“Hey, I’m sure he’s not clean or anything. But if I’m not seeing him use it, it’s got to mean that he’s cutting back, right?” Topaz said with strained cheer. “I think he might only be using it around the moon.”
Which happens to be now, Carlisle thought, but did not have the heart to mention. “We can always hope,” he said gently. “Come on.” He took Topaz’s hand, giving it a squeeze, and veered out of the stream of people and across the lawn. “I noticed an arcade when we arrived and, if memory serves, you said you are something of a pinball wizard.”
“Oh, yeah, I kick ass at pinball.”
“Would you care to make a small wager on that? Because I do not imagine the game has changed much since 1973 and I do believe that my own skills will put yours to the test.”
A panel popped open beside Heather’s face where she knelt on the floor. It was about the size of a large dog door. She heard voices and people moving somewhere in the house. She was running out of time. She slid one arm through, intent on at least attempting to get through it. She could see, at the end of the short passage, Rune sprawled out on the floor. Her forward motion suddenly stopped. Her hips! They were too wide.
She rolled on her side and shimmied a little farther. She would have given anything to be twenty pounds lighter or possibly male right then. Then her arms were free, her head, her shoulders. She put her hands on the wall on either side of the passage and pulled herself the rest of the way out and into the room.
She knelt beside Rune. His eyes were half open and unfocused. Was it possible he would stay in the attic for the remainder of the day and never notice the workers in the house? But no, they had said they would put a bait station in the attic as well. She could not count on him sleeping through someone bungling around on the other side of the wall.
“Rune? I need to take you out of here,” she said. She reached out and, after some hesitation, touched his shoulder lightly. When that elicited no reaction, she shook him gently. “Rune, wake up.”
He made a small, questioning noise and raised his head. His eyes slowly focused on her. “I’m awake,” he said. His voice was slurred and rough.
“I need you to come with me.” She looked at the wall. The door had closed. How would she ever get through with him? She could not carry him and still fit through. And he did not seem inclined to walk, since his head had flopped to the floor again. “I can’t get out,” she finally said.
“Just push the button.”
“I can’t fit both of us through there.”
Rune lifted his head and squinted at her. “Have you put on weight?”
She put her hands on her hips. “Oh, very nice. Very charming.” She lowered them when she realized that it just brought attention to her hips. “I can’t fit through that tiny little door with you too.”
“Not that door,” Rune mumbled and lolled on his back.
“There’s another door?” Heather scanned the wall, looking for a sign of a second doorway. “Is there a button for it?”
“Up high. One for cats, one for…” His voice trailed off, but she assumed he meant one for humans. Changing-cats after their change. It was a foxhole. Changing-cats could come and go, but strangers of the human variety could never get in.
“Where is the second button, Rune? I can’t feel it,” Heather said, bumping her fingers along the wall where it met the ceiling.
“There, right there,” he said, waving a paw at her in an oddly human gesture.
Heather smashed the palm of her hand against the wall. Where she had expected a button, she found a hand-sized pad. Dust and disuse had stuck it over time and there was an audible squeak as she pushed it in. A narrow opening, just big enough to let a person through sideways, slid open on a mechanism she could not begin to imagine. With it open, she could once again hear voices and movement in the rest of the house.
Heather knelt back down next to Rune. “Can you walk?” Rune shook his head. She shimmied a hand under his neck and the other under his hips. “I’m going to pick you up, okay? Don’t take my arm off for it this time.” She lifted his rag doll body and cradled him in her arms. He offered no resistance.
Heather slid out of the foxhole room and back into the attic proper. The narrow steps were treacherous to take without the use of her hands for balance. She stopped at the bottom and listened. The voices of the workers were closer, perhaps even on the second floor already. She did not dare attempt to sneak him out to the woods. She ducked into her room and closed the door with her foot.
She sat down on the edge of her bed. “You really overdid it this time, Rune,” she said when she looked down at the insensible cat in her arms. “You’re going to go too far one of these days.”
Rune burrowed his face into the crook of her elbow. Then the most unexpected thing happened. Rune started to purr. It was broken by hiccups and long pauses, as though he forgot what he was doing, but he always started up again and as long as he did, Heather could not bring herself to let go.
George Ellison drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as he idled at the red light. Call from Susanna Dahl, an automated voice said over his headset. How many times did they have to talk in one day? “Hello,” he said.
“Hi. What’s wrong? You sound upset.”
He ground his teeth and forced his voice to perk up. “Nothing’s wrong. I’m still at the office, that’s all.”
“Oh. I just wanted to let you know, I got some paperwork from the accountant today.”
He moved the headset closer to his mouth to drown out the sound of the engine. “Meaning?”
“You asked me to tell you if Heather Lee was fixing up her house.”
George did not have to feign interest any longer. “You found something.”
“All the time she was gone, there was activity on the account. Probably a gardener or caretaker of some sort to watch the place for her. Nothing too expensive. Lots of cash withdrawals. Probably spending money.”
He turned into the driveway of the gated community where he lived. “Yeah, yeah. What’s she doing now?”
“She’s spending five times as much now. It’s still nothing compared to the assets her family has set up. Their portfolio could probably buy a small state.”
He rolled his window down and punched in the gate code. “Is she fixing the place up?” George insisted.
“Half her expenses are going to local home improvement stores, nurseries, and an exterminator company.”
“What about the other half?”
“That part is a little strange. She must have had a lot of guests over for Thanksgiving. Maybe someone’s living with her. But she’s buying a ton of food. I mean, there is no way she can be going through hundreds of dollars of groceries in the time span I’m looking at.”
He drove to the top of the hill, where the houses had the best view. “Interesting. Was that all?”
“Yes. So, are you sure you won’t be able to get away at all tonight?”
George turned into his driveway. “They’ve got me chained to the desk, sweetheart. But I’ll call you tomorrow, I promise.” He killed the engine and fished in the backseat for his briefcase.
“And keep me posted on any new developments with Lee.” He popped the latches and took out a notebook and pen.
“Sure. Bye-bye.” There was a click as the line disconnected.
On the first page, he circled one item on the list then snapped the notebook shut. “That’s the best damn news I’ve heard all day,” George said to himself.