If George Ellison heard one more advertisement about how the housing market was turning around, he would kill something. If it was doing so much better, why couldn’t he afford to hire a private investigator to skulk around in bushes in the middle of the night for him? Instead, George panted and pushed his hands against his thighs to propel himself up the steep hill to the house. Why would anyone want to live this far off the beaten path?
He ducked into the trees that lined the property as he reached the summit of the hill. There were lights on in the house even at almost two in the morning. Wild party? He could use that if he talked to the homeowner’s association. But there was no music. In fact, the house seemed deathly quiet. It was waiting for something.
He crept out, knees aching with the effort to stay crouched close to the ground. The closest window was dark but he looked in all the same. His eyes had adjusted to the dark on his trek up the hill, but he still could not quite make out the shapes he saw in the room. He squinted until his eyes and temples throbbed. The things moved. George moved lower so his eyes barely cleared the ledge of the window. Something bright flashed orange and green in one of the dark shapes. Then it disappeared as the shape moved away from the window.
George moved on tiptoes, feeling out each step before he took it, wary of sticks and dry leaves that would give him away. Around the corner of the house, he found a bright patch of ground from an illuminated window. This time he stood beside the window and leaned in, inch by agonizing inch, to see through it.
Cats. Maybe six of the furry bastards. That’s what he had seen before — cat’s eyes shining in the low light. Between the two rooms, there were at least a dozen, maybe more. Who needed that many cats? A little thrill of satisfaction went through him. Maybe she was a hoarder. He could easily parlay that into losing her house.
He crouched down, ready to move on to another window, but a sound made him look once more. A cat looked like it needed to hack up a hairball. It stretched out on the floor and writhed a little. Then another cat did the same thing. One by one, they all lay down in what started to look like death throes. His mind rushed through possibilities. Rabies? Poison? Distemper?
Then things turned weird. His mind could not quite follow what happened, registering just a few isolated moments: fur falling off a cat in flurries; a leg and paw stretching to impossible lengths; a mouth full of fangs opening around a human laugh. He blinked and a room full of cats became a room full of people.
Each one naked as the day they were born, they sat up and started talking in a language he had never heard. They rubbed their eyes and scratched and stretched. Some of them walked out, some of them moved from the floor to furniture, and some of them stayed sprawled on the floor. English words started to filter into the foreign babble.
George Ellison moved away from the window. Whatever the hell he just saw, it made hoarding cats look like a harmless hobby. It would take a lot more work, but he would find a way to use this as leverage.
Age had robbed the old cat of her teeth and she lisped her words. “It won’t be long now.”
Heather pulled her sweater tighter to ward off the chill of more than just early morning. She too could feel the moon changing, tuning into it like flicking one ear to listen to a distant sound. “Can I do anything for you, Sarna?”
The ancient queen curled and stretched, trying to get comfortable on the heating pad under her blanket. Her legs shook with even that tiny effort. Fragile skin showed through her thin fur. But her eyes, though barely open, were still clear. “Water, please. Just a little.”
Heather tipped a spoonful of water into the cat’s mouth and set the mug aside again. “Carlisle sent word to your sons, like you asked. Are you sure…”
“That I’m dying?” Sarna asked with a wheezing chuckle. Heather knew the only answer was yes. But she was young and hopeful and it seemed impossible to just know your time was up. To announce your death before it had come. Sarna set a paw over Heather’s nearby hand. “I can’t survive the change this time.”
Heather stroked her thumb across Sarna’s paw. “Your friends will be back as soon as they finish changing.” No one wanted to disturb Sarna, so Heather, the only one who would not be changing that night, had watched her for the hour around the moon change.
“I’m not afraid,” Sarna said. “I’m in my home. I had my fair share of good kittens. I had my nine lives.” She rested, her breathing shallow. For a moment she seemed to sleep, but without opening her eyes, she said, “I danced on Broadway as a young woman. Not that you’d know it to look at me now.”
“Not in Cats, by any chance?” Heather asked with a wry smile. Laugh so you don’t have to cry, she told herself.
“No, I was before it’s time. I was in Oliver! though.”
Heather smiled. She wondered what Mother had said when she died. What had she remembered as the highlight of her life? Would she have sent word to Heather if she knew where her prodigal daughter lived?
When the change came, Heather felt it as a little twinge in her body as it started to change before realizing it already had. Under her hand, Sarna took a sharp breath and her heart beat harder and louder than should have been possible. The change took energy and strength she did not have. It did not even start.
Heather waited, hand on Sarna’s side, until she was certain there was no breath and no heartbeat to be felt. She folded the blanket around the body, covering Sarna’s face last, and switched off the heating pad. Eventually, the others came back and relieved Heather. In the time between, though, she tried to think of something to say, knowing that Sarna would not hear it anymore than Mother would, but longing for some sentiment that would give her closure. In the end, she had to settle for just staying by her side. It was still more than she had given Mother.
Rune relished the burn of fatigue in his arms and shoulders as he counted push-ups under his breath. The change woke him every time and left him sleepless, even though he had been adjusting to Heather’s daytime routine. His muscles ached anyway from raking leaves and fixing the porch and falling out of a tree while trimming it. He had a fantastic bruise on his right shoulder from that last one.
He let himself collapse to the carpet and roll onto his back. Heather probably slept soundly at that moment. She would want to get back to work once real morning came. Rune stumbled into the bathroom. Splashing water on his face made it easier to avoid looking at himself. His strength returned, coaxed along as a cat and as a human, but his face did not change. He buried his face in a towel as he walked out of the room and tossed it behind himself, mirror successfully avoided.
Clean and dressed, he padded barefoot down the hall to the kitchen. Foraging for breakfast yielded leftovers thoughtfully packaged and labeled by Heather. He chewed a hunk of cold chicken at the table and watched the sky lighten like a gas flame turned higher and higher, blue to orange to white. It was just a sliver of sky directly over the hills. The rest held on to night.
In moments like this, Rune longed for the comforts of human life. A television did wonders for drowning out self-doubt, even if it did nothing to encourage sleep. Instead, he folded his arms on the table and refused to think about what it meant that he scheduled his life around Heather now. Or what would happen if — when — she decided he made a better handyman than husband. Heaven knew, he made no kind of husband.
Rune walked to the sliding doors, entertaining thoughts of walking outside, in time to see the coyote make a dash for the house. Rune threw the door open before he saw the cat in its path. Time seemed to compress then, as all three animals tried to adjust to the new information. Rune moved to intercept. The cat wheeled for the open door. The coyote swerved to follow even as it dodged Rune.
The coyote had speed over the other two and snapped, yellow-toothed, at the retreating cat. Had it not attempted to avoid Rune, which it only registered as big and human, it might have captured more than a tail. As it was, the cat spun, screaming amid the hisses, and dug little claws into the coyote’s eyes. The next snap immobilized one paw and would have been the cat’s doom, but Rune, forgotten in the momentary fight, half tackled and half fell into the coyote.
Cowardice won over hunger and the coyote retreated, rubbing its bloodied eyes every few steps. Huddled over the cat, Rune saw it stop just inside the trees, watching and waiting and hoping, and he roared at it, a noise of fury beyond species. Below him, the grass bent under a dew of blood from the shredded tail and crushed paw. The cat moaned, too hurt to speak or clean the wounds.
Rune bundled the cat into the kitchen. “Easy, easy. You’re going to be okay.” Blood loss was the first problem, Rune thought as he pressed one dish towel around the tail and another around the paw. Heather could get antibiotics for infection later. Such a small cat, he thought. He tried to soothe it long enough to let him call for help. Just a kid, not old enough to change yet. “Stay put and I’ll get Heather. Heather will make it better.”
Heather shook a pill out of a bottle. “Swallow this. It’s for the pain.”
The young cat stopped tugging at the bandage on his foot long enough to gulp the pill down. “How long do I have to wear this?”
“Until your foot doesn’t look like it got put through a meat grinder, stupid,” Heather snapped. He made Rune look like an ideal patient. “The same goes for your tail. And you get antibiotics twice a day from me or your mother. No arguments.”
Rune helped him down from the counter to the floor. As he limped away, Rune said, “He’s awfully calm about the whole thing.”
“He’s young and indestructible, remember? And he could have taken that coyote by himself, easy.” Heather snorted. Young and foolish was more like it.
Heather packaged up the medical supplies, restocked by the vet during Rune’s detox, and Rune scrubbed down the kitchen counters, which had been press ganged into serving as an operating room. Heather looked up from washing her hands when Dorian came barging through with another cat and Valoria hot on his heels.
“She’s one of our best hunters,” he said in a tone that brooked no argument.
Valoria was having none of it. “It’s a fool’s errand anyway. That coyote is long gone and I need her help.”
The cat in question took a knife from the butcher’s block on the counter. “This is more important. And we can track it.”
“Better to do it now,” Dorian said, “while we’re human and can put up a fight.”
“My knives?” Heather asked as the pair disappeared out the back door. “What are they doing with my knives?”
Valoria huffed. She took a large pot down from the cupboard and ran hot water in the sink. “Everyone’s up in arms over the coyote. It’s been years since one came this close to the house.”
“Are the farthest trees still booby-trapped?” Heather asked.
“Yes and if it didn’t get hit with rocks on the way in, it probably did when it left. Come with me,” she said and lifted the pot of steaming water out of the sink.
“I just lost a midwife, so I’ll need someone to fill in.”
“Midwife?” Heather looked back at Rune, who shrugged and followed after her.
“Donya is in labor and she’ll need help now that she’s changed. She’s panicking over the baby going through that.”
“I didn’t know it was dangerous,” Heather said as she accepted the pot while Valoria fished more towels out of the linen closet upstairs.
“It’s not ideal. She’s in a state over it though.” Valoria dropped her voice as she opened the door to one of the shared bedrooms, which had been cleared out of everyone but Donya and a young woman who looked like her daughter. “How often are the contractions?”
“Five minutes apart,” the daughter answered.
“Good, we’re getting down to it.”
Heather hovered awkwardly by the makeshift bed. Her stomach lurched nervously. “I’ve never, uh, seen someone give birth before.” By the door, Rune averted his eyes politely, but she saw him smirking. Jackass. Easy for him to laugh; he’d had a kid — and that thought really did not help her calm down.
“Thankfully,” Valoria said with a wink, “I have. I just need an extra set of hands. I’ll tell you everything you need to do.” Heather thought that sounded like a swell change of pace from being asked to take care of everything herself.
Rune closed the door on the new mother and kitten and joined Heather where she had slid down the wall to sprawl in the hallway. He sat not quite touching her. It felt nice to just close his eyes, her warmth on one side and the cool of the wall against his back. “Hell of a morning,” he said. It had been a mistake to follow Heather up there because it meant he played errand boy for Valoria.
Heather mumbled in reply. Then her head settled on his shoulder. In the space between their bodies, her fingers grazed his. “Wake me next week,” she said. She shifted and got comfortable against him.
Rune let his cheek rest against her head. His neck bent too far and his arm felt numb as he held still too long. But he would not move for the world in that moment. Consciousness faded only to snap back as suddenly as if someone had pricked him with a pin.
Against his shoulder, Heather stirred and groaned. “I can’t even fall asleep now. I’m thinking about paying bills. And fixing the sink in the downstairs bathroom.”
Rune curled his fingers around hers. “It’ll keep. Just rest for now.”
Heather scooted closer. “While we have a chance,” she agreed. What Rune missed in sleep then he made up for in contentment.
George poked buttons on his phone fitfully. Damn thing. How the hell was he supposed to get anything to work? And why did “menu” have to be represented by four little squares? What kind of sense did that make?
He shifted his weight from foot to foot in an attempt to get comfortable while perched on a steep slope. The tree he leaned against had a trunk as thick as three men and even the lowest branches were far above his head. It was an oak and its branches were few and thick. Through them, dawn light filter and grew stronger by the moment. On the cell phone’s screen, the menu flicked out of view, replaced by a wobbling view of the rocky ground at his feet.
Perfect. If he hurried back to the house, he might be able to get a glimpse of someone turning into a cat again. What the hell were they, werecats? Was it just some parlor trick? But no, what he had seen defied that explanation. George did not consider himself the sort of fool who would deny the evidence of his own senses just because he saw something fantastic. No, something weird was afoot here and he bet good money Lee would want to keep it quiet.
Stumbling over a tumble of rocks, George turned back up the hill. He had never seen a car there when Dahl brought him there, but he stayed off the road all the same. Sweat soaked his shirt under the arms and where his belt bit into his belly. Even if a few seconds of shaky video — how much could this thing record, anyway? — would not impress an outsider, he thought Lee would see things differently. Secrets, when revealed, always seem worst to the person who’s been keeping them.
Deeper in the trees, a branch snapped loudly. George ducked around the opposite side of a tree and listened. Someone cursed, too low to make out anything more than the sentiment behind it. Paying attention now, George made out more than one set of footfalls crunching through the fallen leaves and brush. George chuckled to himself. They were obviously even less suited to this damn wilderness than he was.
He started walking again, fiddling with the video capture settings on his phone as he went. Something gave under his toe, a hunk of rock worn away by lichen and rainfall trickling through the trees, and his leg slid backwards. His knee smacked the rock and his foot sent a little cascade of shards and pebbles tumbling down. He caught himself with both hands. He started to scramble up when he heard the voices, intense and focused in his direction.
He knew if he ran, he would only attract them more precisely to him and outrunning people in forests was not part of his skill set. So he froze, crouched on the ground, cell phone under one palm, body partially hidden by a tree. He tried to think of what he wore in terms of how well it might blend in with the scenery. If he held still, would he look like a fallen branch? A cluster of rocks?
The voices swelled and retreated. His knee ached and his palms stung and his back and armpits dripped sweat. An eternity later, a bird chirped. Another answered. Ambient noise returned. George eased his stiff body out of its crouch. He picked up his cell phone. A fat spider web of black broke up the display where the heel of his hand had shattered the LCD. He mouthed swear words, too scared of the phantoms moving through the trees to use his voice, and pocketed the phone.
Even if he had dared return to the house now, knowing someone hunted nearby, no phone meant no video. He turned back downhill. He would take his car, obtain breakfast, and come back when it could be called reasonable visiting hours. Even without the video, this was such a particular sort of secret, even the thinnest of allusions would get Lee wound up. And maybe that little bit of pressure was all he needed to push her to sell. Losing the fun of seeing her really squirm would be worth it if he never had to trek through these godforsaken trees again.
Heather pulled a pile of mail toward her across the desk. Gray-whiskers dead, kittens born, half the damn house out hunting for one coyote in the California hills. Sorting junk mail and paying bills seemed like the most relaxing thing she could do that morning. She checked that the door was closed then slid open the long drawer in the desk. She wriggled her hand under the address book she had started to build for herself from Mother’s records. She fished out the postcard hidden under it.
It was just junk mail, she knew. Probably everyone in the county had received one. It didn’t mean anything. She stroked a finger over the image on the front: a smiling woman, dark hair disappearing under a tall chef’s hat, flipped a pan over a tall fire, a wave of vegetables and grain caught at the peak of a toss. She did not have to turn the card over to know what it said. She had memorized it moments after it arrived, the lines refreshed in her mind every time she looked at it in secret.
Shelley University offered Heather a degree in culinary arts in just ten months, even while she worked full-time, along with financial aid, a fast-track to the restaurant of her choice, and more testimonials than you could shake your tail at. It listed a phone number to call for more information, but she had not worked up the courage to try. The last time, she had looked too young to even be out of high school and when she could not produce transcripts or a GED, well, no school wanted her when the system said she had been born yesterday.
She slipped the card back into its place and closed the drawer. She sorted the stack of mail in front of her into bills and junk mail and letters, each with its own spot on her desk. Maybe this time it would be different, she thought as she idly flipped through a catalogue offering the “Weirdest Goods on Earth,” which was not much of a selling point in her opinion, especially when weird meant ironic and scatological. She knew Mother had at least marginally authentic records for her stashed away somewhere. If she had access to that, it would change everything. She could go to school and learn to be a real chef.
Her hands stilled in their sorting as her eyes lost their focus. Working on the other side of those double doors for the first time. Maybe she could even start her own restaurant one day, right here by the House. She imagined fanciful names for her new restaurant, names for cafés and sushi bars and steak houses. She shook herself out of the daydream, but a little smile stayed on her lips. She opened each bill with a smile, wrote out the due date with a grin, and noted the balance due with a giggle.
She lifted a rubber band-bound stack from a basket and pulled off the band. The new bills were sorted into the older ones, all in order of the date they were due. She bound them up again and set them aside. On the opposite corner of her desk, the box for all the mail directed to Carlisle waited for his attention. Carlisle liked to keep those alphabetized, which Heather thought was taking organization just a bit too far, but he got his fur in a mat if she just tossed them in.
Her smile faded when she found an envelope between M, Marcel, and O, Olive, from AmeriCard Platinum. It had not been opened. With a wince, she ran the letter opener along the fold and tore out the contents.
“Well, shit.” She rubbed her gritty, aching eyes. Two weeks past due. She would have to go into town and phone in a payment before they imposed whatever punishment they used on late customers. Fees or broken knee caps, increased interest rates or indentured servitude. All much the same thing.
She thought of the day’s score again: dead cat, hurt kid, and late bill. That was three bad things for the day, outweighed by just a new kitten being born. Maybe that meant she had met her quota, she thought as she replaced the letters and stuffed the bill back in its envelope.
The funeral procession marched through the trees and down the far slope of the hill. Rune’s feet turned leaden and dragged him to a stop at the edge. The procession was somber and raucous by turns — crying and laughing and talking and singing, the cats mourned and celebrated their illustrious dead without restraint. Rune’s breath came fast and hard and he felt pinpricks of sweat spring up all over. People streamed around Rune, bumping into him. He could not take another step.
When he returned to the House after… after leaving Caroline, he had one intense catnip binge, during which he first encountered the specter of his wife which would haunt him for another eight years. The catnip offered no solace, only disguise; she could not find him if he never again walked the earth as a human. And if she could not find him, he need not face his own self-loathing. Even now, birds chirping and the promise of new things to eat and explore could not tempt him an inch farther from the house.
Something warm curled over his clenched hand. In the bright sun, he shivered. Heather hovered near his shoulder. “You don’t have to go,” she said.
“I want to show respect. I want…”
Heather curled her arm around his, linking them at the elbow. When she stepped, he followed. At the very end of the procession, behind the mothers with their armfuls of kittens and the dancing children and the cats so old they might join the ranks of the dead at any moment, Rune and Heather walked arm-in-arm like an old couple, taking their time.
The woods had grown only a little in the decade and change since he had last walked the paths there. This year had been damp, so toadstools sprouted in abundance and the smell of leaf mold rose heavy behind their footsteps. He realized they walked faster now. Even so, the last of the procession disappeared beyond the curve of the hill. Brush began to fill in the spaces between trees and their path narrowed to a gap between knee-high walls of gray-green foliage.
“I haven’t been this far either,” Heather said suddenly. “Mother’s buried out here.”
“I didn’t go then either,” Rune confessed. They walked over the peak of the hill and the valley opened up below them. Spines of pine trees and clouds of oak rolled away in dense ranks. The valley did not belong to them, but the rest of the hill did, just until you reached the bottom. The path opened up again, deliberate this time, and twisted around the ribs of the hill. It ended in a long terrace carved into the hill, back when such work was done with dynamite and shovels and life. The graveyard.
Three hundred years of cats were buried here, dating back to when California was little more than a fever dream of gold in the minds of Europeans. A house had come later, but the House was their home in this part of the world even then. They had come on the ships of earlier explorers. Sometimes they were the explorers themselves. They had come up from the high deserts of South America and from stranger places still. This was where they ended.
The party was in full swing down below them. Sarna had already been lowered into her grave and covered with respect, but little ceremony. The living needed the funeral more than the dead. Rune and Heather lingered at the edges of the crowd where those who knew her best told the story of Sarna’s life in wild theatrics.
Heather crouched by a grave marker laid flat into the ground. The letters, struck from black stone, crumbled into each other until the name they shaped was a long blob of paler stone. “I should see her. Finally.” She stood up. “Come with me?”
Rune slipped his arm through hers. “We’ll both pay our respects.” He could not longer tell who led whom, but they walked forward just the same.
Rune’s voice seemed to echo up to Heather through the sink drain. “Hand me the glue.”
She passed the slightly rusty container of glue to him through the cupboard door then peered into the gloom to watch him work. Curled partly on his side, he daubed the brush around the exposed end of the pipe. “Wrench,” he said then twisted the pipe into place. He tightened it with the wrench, gave it a tug to check that it held, and slid out from the emptied cupboard.
“Good to go?” Heather asked. She picked up a package of toilet paper and, when Rune nodded, pushed it back into the cupboard. Spare towels and soaps followed, all repackaged after the leak had slowly soaked them. “Is there anything you don’t know how to do?”
“Fixing a leaky pipe hardly makes me a jack-of-all-trades,” Rune said as he turned out the light behind them. “What’s the next test?”
“I could use help on the–” There was a knock at the door. “Hold that thought. I’ll go see who it is.”
“No and uninvited guests will pitch me straight over the edge today.”
“Maybe it’s just Dopple back again,” Rune said, but she saw him disappear down the hall nonetheless.
On the list of unexpected guests, if she had to contend with them at all, George Ellison was the absolute dead last one she wanted to see standing on their doorstep. “Yes?”
“Miss Lee, you’ll have to forgive me for stopping by unannounced like this. You are rather difficult to contact though.”
“What can I do for you?” Heather made no motion to let him in the door. If he thought for one minute he was walking into her home, he had another thing coming, she thought with a fierce swell of protective pride. He could intimidate her all her wanted in some lawyer’s office, but this was her home. Nobody messed with the Queen.
“I hoped you had an answer for me about taking this place off your hands.” He leaned on the door frame with a hand curled around it; she could not close the door without shutting his hand in it.
“If that’s the case, then you’re in luck,” Heather said. She jutted her chin out and stood up straight so that she could look him in the eye as he slouched. “I have no intention of selling the house. Thank you for your interest, but I don’t think we’ll need to have any further dealings.”
The man smiled slowly. It was not a good look. “I thought you might feel that way. But I think it would be in your best interest to make a home somewhere else. Somewhere a little better suited to your lifestyle.” He leaned in more so that, when Heather did not back away, his breath ghosted across her face, smelling of burnt coffee. “Someplace that allows pets, you know? Like cats?”
Heather was too paralyzed to pull away, so she just stood her ground. He knew. Somehow, he knew. Absolutely knew.
The first thing to get through to her was Rune’s smell, clean and dark and faintly chemical from the glue today. His arm curled around her waist so he could squeeze into the doorway as well. “Good morning, sir,” he said and extended a hand past her. “I don’t believe we’ve met. Ron Rutherford. I’m Heather’s boyfriend.”
Ellison recoiled from the door even as he shook Rune’s hand. “Pleasure. Heather and I were just discussing business.”
Heather looked over her shoulder to watch Rune’s face. It was one part gruff blue-collar guy, two parts Tom Sawyer-esque charmer. “It’s much too early in the morning for business. Why don’t you join us for coffee?”
“Thank you,” Ellison said as he backed away from the door. “I have a business to run, even at this hour.” He looked like he wanted to say something more to Heather, make another sly reference to whatever he had learned about them, but his eyes flicked involuntarily to Rune and he turned back to his car without a word.
The door shut with a tiny snick. Heather sagged against it. She held on to Rune’s hand when it slid away from her waist. “He knows,” she said with a hopeless shrug.
“I heard. We may have to do something about that.” He leaned against the door, facing her, and folded their hands across her stomach.
“I’m glad you were listening in. What did you do to drive him off?”
Rune grunted. “Men like him bully women, but they’re scared to death of other men. He’s nothing but a coward.” He laughed. “I haven’t used that name in a while.”
Heather looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “Boyfriend?”
He blushed under his stubble. “Well, that too. Hell of a morning though, huh?”
“I don’t think I can take another one like it,” Heather agreed, but she thought maybe, with the warm weight of their hands against her, she might be wrong about that.