A tiny candle flickered inside a glass dome and heated George’s arm as he reached across the table to take Susanna’s hand. “There’s something I need to ask you,” he said.
Susanna blushed and set her fork down. “Yes? What is it?” Susanna asked.
Nearby, someone sawed on a violin. George thought of bad Italian restaurants in the seventies. “In the short time that we have been seeing each other, I have come to respect your judgment immensely. And I have a little project in mind.” He kept talking over her half-voiced noises of appreciation. “You of all people know how much time and attention I put into my job. But sometimes, I forget why I started doing this.”
“You have been so stressed lately,” Susanna murmured. “I’ve been worried about you. I’ve hardly seen you this past week.”
“I want to buy a little place, a fixer-upper, just for myself.” He held her gaze and her hand. “Or, maybe, ourselves.”
Her look of enraptured affection slipped. She looked confused now. “What do you mean?”
A lesser man might have been nervous, might have faltered when she did not leap at the idea. George Ellison just settled into his pitch. “I want to buy a house with you as my partner. I want something we can spend time on together. And I would sincerely like your help in it.”
“Oh, I think that sounds wonderful,” she said and George could see she did not mean it. Not yet. But she did not say no. “I would love to do that with you.” Negotiations had begun. He just needed to find the right angle.
“I am so pleased to hear that,” George said. He lifted his wine glass. “To us, then, and our endeavor. May it be profitable and enjoyable.” Their glasses clinked together. And may I enjoy my profits, George added privately.
Rune chomped on dry kibble without pleasure. The community bowls were running low and, since Heather insisted on keeping the bags sealed, he could not get more on his own. He stretched and sniffed and twitched his ears. A voice caught his attention while he was contemplating another dose of catnip.
“Remember how I said that homeowner’s association had its annual meeting just after the first of the year?” Heather said.
Rune padded in her direction. Another voice then. Carlisle’s. “I remember. You said it was today.”
“Yeah, I sort of left something out,” Heather said, sounding embarrassed.
Rune trotted into the solarium, but pulled up sharply when he saw the third occupant of the room: a vacuum. He did not remember them owning a vacuum, the wretched, noisy things. Heather leaned against the handle.
“Yvonne wanted everyone to get a chance to see the house. So she asked me to be hostess. Here. Today,” Heather said, wringing her hands.
Carlisle slumped into the reclining chair where he was seated. “Oh, Heather, what were you thinking?”
“I tried to say no, but she can be quite persuasive.”
Rune moved around the edge of the room, keeping his distance from the vacuum. He jumped onto the coffee table and waited and listened.
“One hundred or more cats,” Carlisle snapped. “And on a Leo moon. There is barely enough room for them as it is. What do you expect me to do with them while you have a bloody tea party?”
“This is important,” Heather whined. “I need to make a good impression on these people.”
“Why? Poppy never bothered with them,” Carlisle said with a dismissive flick of his hand.
“Yeah, and now I’m in trouble for it. It’s mandatory. There’s some rule about attendance for property owners.”
“Absolute rubbish,” Carlisle pronounced.
“Please? Can’t you just take everyone out on a field trip or something?”
Rune meowed to get their attention. “You can’t send them outside,” he said when they looked at him. “There are kittens still under age. They can’t change yet.”
“So their mothers can carry them or something,” Heather said.
“Into town? Do a bit of shopping with a kitten in their back pocket?” Rune said.
“Carlisle, think of something,” Heather said. “I need the house today.”
Rune huffed an annoyed sigh at her theatrics. “The whole damn house for a few humans to chat over canapés?” He scratched behind his ear with a hind foot and said, “You can have the ground floor. Carlisle and I will keep everyone upstairs.”
“Really?” Heather asked, rounding on him with wide eyes. “You’re okay with it?”
“Not even a little,” Rune said. “But we’ll call it the lesser of many evils. Carlisle, get Topaz to call in anyone outside. You and I will start moving everyone upstairs.”
“The meeting is at noon,” Heather said.
“Then by noon, you will have the illusion of a cat-free house,” Rune said acidly. “I’m sure everyone will be pleased to get as far as possible from that machine,” he said and flicked his tail at the vacuum. He set off at a trot through the house, rounding up changed cats as he went and wishing he had just gone upstairs for catnip instead.
Rune retreated from the top of the stairs where he had been eavesdropping on the rather dull conversation of Heather’s new friends while his high fizzled under the weight of the Leo moon. He heard another set of raised voices coming from the opposite end of the floor and went to investigate. He scratched at the door, which opened only after a long delay, during which he heard several voices arguing. “I take it the concept of keeping quiet was a bit too difficult for you all,” Rune said when the door shut behind him. “What’s going on?”
Topaz and another big tom were restraining a frantic queen. Her face was red and wet. She strained against their hands on her arms. “My kitten,” she wailed. Topaz clamped a hand over her mouth before she could get any louder.
Carlisle said, “We have a problem,” and turned away from the woman. “Her kitten is missing,” he said quietly.
“Have you checked the other rooms? It might have ended up with friends somewhere else.”
Carlisle shook his head. “Topaz already checked. No one has even seen her.”
Rune sighed. “I’ll see if I can find her.” He turned to the queen. “What’s your kitten’s name?”
She shook her head free of Topaz’s hand. “Elly. Please, she’s only three months old. If she got outside…” She dissolved into tears again.
“Should I get Heather?” Carlisle asked.
“No. I’ll find Elly. Heather and her buddies need never know. It’ll just raise too many questions if you show up downstairs. Ma’am, where did you last see Elly?”
She wiped her hands over her face, the pressure leaving streaks of white amid the red. She sniffled and said, “We were in the solarium, watching the birds outside. Then we came up here. I know she was with me. I carried her, for pity’s sake.”
“But you haven’t seen her up here?”
“We came in before most of the others. She must have snuck out when a group came in.” She knelt in front of Rune. “The humans won’t hurt her, will they? If they find her?”
“Heather would never let them do anything to a kitten,” Carlisle said.
“I’m going to find her before it comes to that,” Rune said. “I promise you, no harm will come to your kitten.”
“Thank you,” she said, stroking her shaking hands over Rune’s coat.
Carlisle let him out into the hallway. Rune sniffed. The kitten would smell like her mother, like milk, and like the fine, soft fur that only kittens had. He listened carefully, but there were so many small noises in the background, hidden behind closed doors. He tried to pick out cat noises from all the human noises.
It was no good. He would have to just start looking. He ran to the end of the hall, but instead of going downstairs, he hooked his paw around the door of a cabinet. Inside, where the right-hand wall should have been, there was just open darkness. He ducked low and entered the crawlspace, tracing the ceiling beams through the house and over to the solarium.
Susanna held her breath as the engine died and ticked quietly in the silence. She glanced over at George and caught him staring at her. She preened under the attention and he put a hand on her shoulder.
“I’ll walk you to your door, then, shall I?”
“You could come inside. I can make us coffee. We did have rather a lot of wine. I would hate for something to happen to you.”
“If we’re just being responsible, why not?” George said. “I’ll take that cup of coffee.”
Susanna smiled when they went inside, but not at George. She smiled because she had planned for this and her little house looked impeccable. She led George into the kitchen, with its unused, black-handled knives and its bowl of bright orange and green mangos that smelled sweetly rancid to Susanna, and began setting the coffee maker to work.
“It wouldn’t be for keeps,” George said out of the blue.
Susanna flicked the switch on the coffee maker and turned around. “What’s that?”
“Our project. I just want to be clear. We wouldn’t be picking out a house we want to grow old in,” he said. “Just an investment for the two of us together.”
“I think that sounds fine,” Susanna said. She thought, you can bet I’ll do the picking when it comes time for us to choose a place to live. “Very practical.”
“Something that we can turn around in a real spectacular fashion,” George said.
Susanna boosted herself into the stool next to him at the kitchen counter. “Did you have something in mind?”
“I wouldn’t make a decision without you. But I admit I had thought of one place.”
“Don’t keep it a secret,” Susanna said. She leaned in close to him as though they really were sharing a great secret. “Tell me.”
“That house on the hill. The Lee place.”
From his hidden perch in the rafters, Rune looked down on Heather’s meeting. Of course, Heather had cooked and the smells rising from the table, pastry dough and mushrooms and butter, set Rune’s stomach growling so loud, he worried it would attract the attention of the humans below.
“Heather was telling me — we ran into each other in town the other day — that she wants to restore the house,” Yvonne, that chatty human, said.
Rune rolled his eyes. Nothing would get restored unless someone ripped the oven out so Heather could not cook anything for a while.
“And I said,” Yvonne said with a laugh and a knowing glance around the circle of men and women, “I said, dear, restore it to what? A lumber pile?” Everyone else laughed. Heather laughed. Heather also winced and fidgeted. Anyone with half a brain, even a human, could see she was embarrassed. Rune ignored them and scanned the room, searching for Elly. A kitten that young could get into all manner of hiding places, Rune knew.
“I know it’s a little run down,” Heather said, only to be drowned out by the other voices.
“The way you talked, Yvonne,” a man said, “I imagined mud walls and a thatched roof.”
“I’m glad I didn’t disappoint, then,” Yvonne said in a burst of raucous laughter that ruined her veneer of gentility. She must have noticed Heather, whose body language said she was moving from ashamed to defensive. Yvonne patted her hand. “Oh, I’m just teasing you, pet. I know you’ve only been here a little while. There’s only so much one person can do in that time with a place like this.”
A place like this, Rune mouthed. Who did the bitch think she was? She wanted to be there. No one had forced her. And what was so wrong with his home, their home, that she could talk about it that way?
“Don’t you have any family?” Another woman asked.
Heather flinched, but put on a brave smile. “No. My mother was the last. I was living abroad and I guess it was hard for her to keep the place up.”
Rune growled. That was the understatement of the century. He thought he saw movement, but it was only the reflection of a woman’s hand moving in the window. He began to lose hope of finding Elly quickly.
“Did you hear something?” Yvonne asked, looking around the room.
“I didn’t hear anything,” Heather said and looked pointedly up at the ceiling where Rune hid. But no one was listening to her anyway. Rune took that as his cue to leave. Elly was no where in sight, at any rate. He ducked back into the crawlspace and made his way farther down the length of the house.
Rune trotted through a back hallway. With the temporary population boom, these little-used parts of the House were inhabited and dust hung in the air, stirred up by many feet from its usual resting places. He stopped to watch the movement of dust motes through a wedge of sunlight. Minutes or hours later, he came to enough to realize he sat slack-jawed and staring in the empty hallway. Concentrate, he ordered himself. Think. Just a little longer, damn you. Keep yourself together. He shook dust from his coat and continued on. He had almost reached the end of the house.
Rune stopped in his tracks. There. What was that sound? He took a few steps forward and realized, with growing fear, where he was. An archway opened in the wall just ahead. He ran to it. A spiral staircase led straight up into the highest reaches of the house.
He strained his ears forward, hoping against hope that he would hear nothing. But there it was again, the repetitive mewing of a kitten, as though she navigated by sonar. Rune leapt up the stairs, higher and higher until he reached a landing that would be level with the roof.
Where another doorway should have been, this one leading out onto an open-air walkway, there was just rubble reinforced with several boards, hastily pushed into place to prevent further damage. It was all that remained of the interior of the tower.
“Elly?” Rune called out. “Elly, can you hear me?” The mewing increased in frequency and pitch. Damn it, why did she have to be there? “Elly, are you okay? Are you hurt?” The only answer was more frantic mewing, a babble of cat-speak gibberish. “Just stay where you are. I’m going to come get you.”
Rune pushed his nose and paws into the gaps in the rubble. He could see where she had gotten out, a tunnel that had formed where two boards met and the debris had tumbled out below them. He could see light at the other side. But try as he might, he could not get through after her. He pawed at the debris, trying to dislodge it to open a wider passage. But everything had settled in the time since the original collapse and gravity had mortared stone and wood into place against one another.
He growled and shook his head. He was wasting time. “Elly? I want you to stay right where you are, understand? I’m going to get help. We’re going to get you back to your momma. Just sit tight.”
After dinner and drinks, George’s breath was sour with garlic, wine and coffee, trapped against his own nose by the curve of Susanna’s neck. “It’s important to me that we be partners,” he said. He left a kiss there and moved on.
Susanna curled her fingers up into his hair. “I want that as well.” Her acrylic nails were thick and blunt, easy on his scalp. The last girl he had been with was a secretary with sharp nails, kept short for typing.
“That we be equals in this,” he muttered while he struggled with the clasp of her bra. She made matters more difficult by continually arching into his touch, providing a moving target.
“Equals,” she obediently repeated while her arms and legs wound around him and totally prevented him from enjoying her newly liberated breasts.
“I’m glad you agree.” He pushed down one of her legs and felt around for the zipper on her skirt. Her fingers chased his and undid it before he even saw where it was. “The split will make this so much more meaningful.”
She made a pained noise when he pitched the skirt away into the dim room. “What split?”
“Oh, just on the property.” She finally started moving with him, whipping away his unknotted tie and getting his shirt rucked up under his arms without unbuttoning it. “Each of us putting up half for the down payment. That’s all.”
As soon as he got his cuffs unbuttoned, she had the shirt off of him, left in some secluded corner to do unspeakable things with her likewise abandoned skirt. “We don’t even know for sure that it’s available. Let alone how much the down payment might be.”
He kept moving, letting her fumble too long with his pants just to keep her busy. “You don’t think we should be equals?” If she had time to stop, she would think they were having a serious discussion.
“I didn’t say that,” she said, successfully derailed by pants and emotional blackmail.
“Then you do,” he said and kissed her out of simple pleasure as she got the better of his pants at last.
“Well, yes, but I don’t see–”
“Then that settles it, he said, sinking his weight onto her at last. “Half and half. Two people, coming together for a common goal.”
She laughed and he knew, in that sound, he would get everything he wanted. “I believe your thinking of something else now.”
Rune rushed through the house. Heather was no longer in the solarium, nor were her guests. He skidded to a stop in the front room. Voices outside. He jumped onto the window sill. They had moved onto the porch. The guests were carrying their purses and coats as though they intended to leave, but they were still chatting away like they could stay the rest of the day. There was no time to wait for them to clear off. His need for catnip gnawed at him, worse than pain, worse than hunger. He opened the front door with an easy jump and ran outside.
When they heard the door open, the humans turned and watched in astonishment as he let himself out. “My, what a clever trick,” a woman exclaimed. “Did you teach him that?”
Heather made shooing motions with her hand at him even as he approached. “No, jeez, no. He was my mother’s and now I’m stuck with him. I’m going to have to change doorknobs so he can’t do that.”
“I think it’s cute,” the woman said.
Rune rolled his eyes at the stupid humans. Everything animals did was cute, because the humans never had a clue what they were really doing. “Heather, get them to leave,” he said. Heather grimaced and pretended to not hear him.
“Sounds like someone wants his din-dins,” Yvonne said.
Rune put his paws up on Heather’s legs. “I need your help. Now. It’s important.” She just brushed him off and hissed under her breath.
“We should let you get back to your routine,” the first woman said. “I think he’s saying we’ve worn out our welcome.” Brilliant, Rune thought, a human who actually listens.
“Don’t rush off on his account,” Heather said. “He can wait.”
“But Elly can’t,” Rune said and hooked his nails into her calf. Heather shouted in surprise and jerked away from Rune, but he was behind her and she stumbled. She tried to catch her balance on the railing of the porch. But when her weight hit it, there was a crack and Heather fell backwards off the side of the porch, through the new, woman-sized gap in the railing.
“Oh, my god, are you alright?” Someone asked. There was a clamor of voices as everyone rushed to Heather’s side. No one would let Rune past.
Heather groaned and rolled over. Under her back, a two-foot length of splintered wood had partially sunk into the soft ground. Heather coughed and wheezed like the wind had been knocked out of her.
“You could have been impaled,” Yvonne said. Rune thought it sounded like an accusation, as though Heather had just pulled some foolish stunt.
Rune circled around them and finally broke through. He sat at Heather’s side and pawed at her hand. She braced herself on her hands and knees. “Okay, ow,” she said. “What the hell happened?”
“I’m sorry,” Rune said. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m okay,” Heather said, more to herself than anything. “That’s going to leave a bruise.”
“Do you want us to call an ambulance? Take you to the emergency room?” A man asked.
Heather knelt up then rose to her feet. She moved slowly and closed her eyes, head no doubt spinning. Rune kept his distance, afraid to trip her again, but did not leave. “I’ll be fine,” Heather said. “I’m sorry to cause such a scene.”
“It’s getting to be a regular occurrence with you, these little disasters,” Yvonne said coolly.
Rune hissed quietly at the foul woman. “Send them away, please?”
“I should go put some ice on this,” Heather said, “if I want to be able to walk tomorrow.”
“Good idea,” a woman agreed. “Or take a nice hot bath, dear.”
“Thank you for an otherwise pleasant afternoon,” a man said reluctantly, the polite phrases suddenly out of place.
Heather waited for them to all drive away, queuing up behind one another for the drive down the hill. Then she turned on Rune. She would have been more intimidating if she had not been wincing and holding a hand to her back. “This had better be good,” Heather said, “or I’m going to poison your kibble some day soon.”
Neither climbing ladders nor rappelling around the outside of buildings was Rune’s forte, but Heather accepted the rescue mission with a stoicism he admired. Elly had emerged in the middle of the rubble that sealed the top and side of the house where the tower once attached. Heather had to navigate the unstable debris, while Rune watched nervously at ground level, pacing and eating as much of the homegrown catnip as he could stuff in his mouth at once. He gratefully rode out the less attractive moments of his high in solitude.
Heather finally descended the ladder then reached into her shirt and pulled out tiny Elly, who was crying up a storm. “Let’s get her back to mommy,” Heather said.
Her mother nearly crushed Elly in her enthusiasm to have her back. Her thanks were tearful and blubbery and Rune and, he suspected, Heather were happy to be rid of her. With the guests gone, the cats were once again given free rein of the house.
“We need to talk,” Rune said when Heather tried to leave with the rest of the cats in the room. A few stayed behind to settle into their temporary accommodations.
“Let’s take this in my office,” Heather said.
“Alone,” Rune said when Carlisle tried to follow them into the office.
“I beg–” Carlisle started to say.
“It’s okay. Go,” Heather said.
Rune pushed the door shut with his shoulder. “If you get your way, humans will have more freedom in this house than cats.”
Heather sat down behind her desk, turrets of folders and books on either side. “That’s not fair.”
“Isn’t it?” He jumped up and perched inches from her. “If you had anything resembling a backbone, you would have told that harpy it was impossible to have the meeting here.”
“Thanks to you, I might not have a backbone any more. And she was trying to give me a chance to get involved.”
“She was looking for a new chew toy.”
“She’s my friend,” Heather barked back.
“You should make friends with your own kind!”
Heather leaned back in her chair and circled her hand in his direction, still carefully out of reach. “Is that was this is about? Your, your anthrophobia? Your terror of all things human? Your prejudice?”
“Prejudice,” Rune spat. “Is it prejudice to acknowledge that we live in separate worlds? That they would neither believe in what we — what you – are, nor treat us kindly if they did?”
“You don’t know that,” Heather said, all teenage petulance.
“Yes, I do.”
“I’ve lived with humans for years. They can be good. I’ve made friends I really cared about.” She leaned farther away. The studied pose of relaxation made her look more on edge than ever.
“That’s your business. This house is mine.”
“Are you challenging my authority here? Because that went so well last time.”
Rune did not rise to her bait, hyper-focused by the unfamiliar feeling of being the mature one of the pair and mellow after his last dose of catnip. “The cats here follow you, follow me, follow your mother, because they need a leader. They need someone who knows more than they do, to protect them, to serve their needs.”
“And I’m doing that.”
“Sometimes. And sometimes you indulge in a fantasy where you can shed your fur forever.” He took advantage of her reclining posture to jump into her lap and get so close to her face, he could no longer see her. It was a great mercy to see nothing but wide blue eyes and a blur of cream that could have been fur. “You are a cat at the end of the day. You are not one of them. You can’t be. And every time you try, you risk yourself and every other cat living here.”
“If you hadn’t tried to kill me, there would have been no problem today.”
“A kitten could have died because you wanted to hold a tea party to satisfy a woman who treats you like a dog.”
Heather dumped him out of her lap and stood in one panicked move. “She did not–”
“A dog, Heather. A pet to be teased. And I’ve had enough. If you want me to lead a rebellion, I can probably manage that.”
Heather crossed her arms. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“I would and you know it.” He let out a chirp of bitter laughter. “I’m not reasonable enough to resist. But I would rather you just listen to me.”
“Listen to you insult the people I would like to befriend? Listen to you tell me I’m just another cat?”
Rune shook his head. “You are not like other cats,” Rune said and he could not help smiling. What a joke, he thought, lecturing her while I can’t go two hours today without a fix. We both make pretty rotten cats. He headed for the door. “But you need to stop this. No more strangers visiting. No more courting them instead of us.”
In the morning, Susanna woke up to George watching her. “Hey,” she said. “You stayed.”
“Sure.” He brushed a lock of hair out of her face. “Did I come on too strong last night?”
She sat up long enough to twist her hair back and away from her face. “What, the–” She waved her hand vaguely to indicate what they had done.
He pulled her back down to his side. “No. I know you liked that. I meant about the project. I think I pushed you too hard. I’m sorry.”
“No, I’m happy about it, really.” She rolled over and burrowed her hand under the sheets so she could snuggle into his arms. “A little surprised. It hasn’t been that long.” Privately, she bemoaned how long it had taken him to offer her a proper incentive to keep seeing him. She was not a teenager any longer; she was not going out with him just for the pleasure of his company.
“That’s why it’s so critical to me that you and I go into this equally. I don’t want you to feel like I’m holding the project over your head.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t think that.”
“You say that now, but I’ve worked with partners before.”
She slapped his shoulder then kept her hand there to knead the muscles. “You’re breaking my heart here.”
“None as lovely as you, of course.” That was what she liked about George. He always gave her the attention she was due. He never missed a cue. “That’s why we’re going to do this right. You’ll never have to worry that I’m going to cheat you.”
“You’re a good man, Mr. Ellison.”
“Only for you, sweetheart,” he said amid a flurry of kisses.
“Let’s go out for breakfast,” Susanna said.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather stay in?”
“When we’re done, ah, staying in, will you be doing the cooking?”
“Ah. I see your point,” he said with a grimace. “How about brunch then, my treat?”
“You’re a tough negotiator, but you’ve got a deal.” She offered her hand for a mock shake to seal the deal.
He pulled her hand to roll her onto his broad body. “I always get the deal,” George said.