For today’s BBN back story, we’re checking in on Kate – you might have already met her in A Problem of Cats and The Thing in the Drain. If not, this story stands alone, but may make a little more sense if you read the other stories also.
“No, no no! Chester! Get back here!”
The ginger cat feinted to the right, then shot past the girl’s legs and through the doorway, stopping on the landing to look back at her.
She scowled. “Get back here. You know you’re not meant to be in the house.”
The cat didn’t answer, just looked speculatively along the landing to where the door of the master bedroom sat ajar.
“No,” the girl hissed. “No, Chester, don’t you dare -” The cat spun away from her as she lunged at him, loping down the hall with his ears pricked. Kate stumbled, skinning one bare knee on the runner, then scrambled up and sprinted after the cat. He gave her an amused look over his shoulder and sped up, easily out-pacing her. Back down the hall, a shaggy black and white cat peered around the door frame of her room, then ducked out of sight.
“Chester!” Kate pulled up at the door to her parents’ room, a stocky girl with messy hair and one reddened knee. The cat stopped just beyond her reach and looked about the room curiously. “Chester, come out! If mum sees you in here -” she stopped. She couldn’t even think of what punishment would be dire enough for the discovery of a cat not just in the house, but in the master bedroom. “Chester, please.”
The cat glanced back at her guiltily. She was on the verge of tears, hands twisted together, too scared to step over the threshold. He sat down and scratched one ear. Well, he didn’t have to go any further. She wasn’t exactly going to leave him here. Even as he thought that, there was a muffled thud further down the hall and Kate turned, frowning.
“Was that in my room?”
Chester yowled, a hard, imperative sound, and she spun back. “Shh! Shh, don’t!”
He stopped, and they waited together in breathless silence. But there was no tread on the stairs, no call from the hall below. Kate glared at the cat. “Don’t make me come in there and get you.”
He yawned, and started cleaning a paw, ignoring her entirely.
Back in the girl’s room, Mitch huddled under the bed, tail whipping angrily and stirring up the dust bunnies. He’d heard Chester yowl, so Kate was probably still concentrating on getting him out of her parents’ room. Which, three cheers for effective distraction techniques, but that left him in here alone to deal with the Auld Scratty, who had not only evaded him, but had knocked the laundry basket over, making altogether too much noise. He bared his teeth. Bloody Chester and his house protection, his obsession with this girl. Sure, she was young, and yeah, the Watch could get a little over-thorough with its cleaning programmes, which wasn’t a nice thing to think about with someone as bright, as shining as this girl, but even so – she seemed to see more things than a kid her age should. She was different. And that was the sort of thing they were meant to be looking for, the sort of thing they were meant to report. But oh no, not Chester. He was all, ‘let’s keep this to ourselves for now, she’s just a kid, you know she’s not a danger, come on Mitch, you agree don’t you, you trust me don’t you?’ And of course he did, he trusted the bloody ginger idiot with his life. And so here he was, a fifth-lifer, chasing a damn Scratty around a kid’s bedroom and rolling in the dust like some common alley cat. This was grunt work, first-lifer work. Plus, Auld Scratties stank, and Mitch was not the sort of cat that liked things that stank. He sighed, cursed Chester fairly creatively, and said, “Are you going to come quietly?”
The Auld Scratty scratched a hairy ear and scowled. “Why should I? There’s good pickings in this place.”
“This house is under our jurisdiction. You’re not welcome here.”
“It’s not a Watch house, though. Why do I have to leave? I’m not hurting anyone.”
Mitch sighed, sneezed and backed out from under the bed. “Come out, would you? I’m getting cobwebs in my whiskers.”
The creature watched the cat suspiciously. “We cool? I’m not coming out if you’re going to try and bite me again.”
“I wasn’t trying to bite you. I was getting your attention.”
“Your bloody tonsils were getting my attention.”
The cat huffed. “Whatever. As if I’d eat a greasy little throwback like you.”
“Watch your mouth or I’ll curse all your hairballs to come up alive.”
Mitch gave him a baleful look. “Then I’ll eat you piece by piece until you undo that particularly lovely gift.”
They glared at each other, and the cat could hear the girl whispering entreaties to Chester just around the corner. Finally the Auld Scratty sighed. “Fine. I’m coming out. Keep your claws in.”
Mitch straightened up as the creature emerged from under the bed, matted hair sticking together in clumps, liberally festooned with dust and cobwebs. He made a half-hearted effort to shake the worst of it off, then gave up and squatted on his haunches, bushy tail curled around him so he could stroke it like a villain’s pet.
“So,what gives, cat?” he asked. “Why’s the Watch patrolling this house?”
“I told you, it’s not,” Mitch said flatly. “We just have a personal interest.”
“You and ginger there?”
The Auld Scratty grinned, exposing ragged yellow teeth. “Not much of a team. And he’s out there playing hide’n’seek with the kid.”
“If I didn’t know better, Scratty, I’d think you were suggesting you didn’t want to cooperate.”
The creature’s grin faded. “Just pointing it out.”
“You know the deal. If the Watch wants the house clean, it stays clean. No Scratties, no gnomes, no nothing. Go find another one. There’s plenty around.”
“Yeah, but I like this one. And you said it wasn’t the Watch anyway. You said it was just you.”
“We’re cats of the Watch. You want to argue the distinction?”
The creature seemed to consider it. He wasn’t much bigger than the cat, but he was plenty strong. If ginger out there was caught up with the kid – Mitch growled, a low vicious sound at the back of his throat, and the Auld Scratty scowled at him. “Steady on, pretty boy. I’m just not sure you have the authority to throw me out.”
Mitch – who really was an exceptionally pretty cat, with his long black and white fur and extravagantly tufted ears and tail – drew his lips back from his teeth and lowered his head, that menacing rumble continuing. “Are you refusing to vacate the premises?”
“Now, I didn’t say that -”
“Because if you were -” he took a slow step forward, his eyes fixed on the creature, pupils no more than slits in the green. “I’d have to take exception to that.”
“Damn it, cat, stop it!” The Scratty let go of his tail and took a hurried step back, grabbing a pencil off the floor and brandishing it. “You lot are always such bullies!”
“Me?” Mitch stopped mid-stalk, looking offended. “You threw a teddy bear at me!”
“As I said, your teeth were getting kind of close.”
“This is really very easy, you know. You go, find another house, everyone’s happy, no one gets eaten. Good, yeah?”
“This house has some rather nice French cheeses,” the Scratty said, not lowering the pencil. “And wine that no one seems to notice go missing. So no, I’d rather stay, thanks.”
“Not an option.”
“Without Watch authority, you can’t just turf me out -” the words devolved into a shriek as the cat launched himself off the floor, batting aside the pencil and closing his teeth on the back of the Auld Scratty’s neck like a mother cat grabbing a kitten. The creature flailed wildly, one ragged claw hooking into the cat’s lower lip. Mitch dropped him and jerked his head away, scooting backwards across the floor, cursing and spitting.
“Gods,” he complained. “Don’t you ever wash? You taste disgusting.” He licked his chops, tasting blood, and added as an afterthought, “Ow.”
The Scratty picked up his pencil. “The idea is to taste unpleasant. Lower odds of becoming breakfast.”
“Well, top marks.” Mitch gagged, and shuddered. “But it won’t stop me biting your smelly head off if I have to.”
The creature sighed, his shoulders slumping. “You’re not going to change your mind?”
“Alright. I give in. Just let me get my stuff, okay?”
“What stuff?” Mitch asked, eyeing the creature suspiciously. “It’s not like you’re carting a hairbrush with you.”
“I have stuff!” the Scratty said indignantly. “Prejudiced, you are. How anyone can be prejudiced when they lick their -”
“Fine, fine. Just hurry up.”
What the hell was taking Mitch so long? The all-clear was one mew just before he shifted and took the Auld Scratty with him to a different house, in an entirely different town. And he really should have given it by now. All he had to do was tell the bloody critter that the house was under Watch jurisdiction, and that there was no point arguing, because they’d just bring in more cats to remove him by force. Simple. No discussion. That was always Mitch’s problem – this idea that everyone deserved all the information, and it should all be discussed, so people could make their own decision. As if anyone ever made the right decision that way. No wonder he’d never worked his way up further than field officer. Chester’s tail whisked impatiently as he avoided Kate and slipped under the bed.
“Chester, please come out,” she begged. She’d had to come in, as much as she knew she wasn’t allowed in her parents’ bedroom when they weren’t there. She had to get the cat out. “Please, I’ll get you some tuna? Cheese?” She lay on her belly and wriggled across the dusty floorboards after him. “Custard?”
Chester waited until she was fully under the bed before slipping out the other side and trotting to the bedroom door, ears pricked for any sound from the girl’s bedroom. There was nothing, no scuffling, no voices. Maybe he’d missed the signal – it was possible, if Kate had been talking at the time. Maybe he should just – he let out an undignified squawk as Kate grabbed him around the belly and hefted him off the floor.
“Gotcha!” she said, grinning, then yelped as he began to twist and squirm, not scratching or biting, just pouring out of her grip like spaghetti off a fork. “Chester!”
“Kate?” someone called from the bottom of the stairs, and the cat and the girl froze, staring at each other with wide, horrified eyes. “What’s going on up there? Who are you talking to?”
“Ah, no one,” she called back, tightening her grip on the cat as he started to wriggle again. “Just to myself.”
“Kate, we’ve talked about this. You really need to grow out of -”
“I know, I know, I was just -” she squeaked as Chester’s teeth closed over her thumb, not hard enough to break the skin, just warningly.
“Just what? Kate?” The lower stair squeaked, and Kate released Chester with a hiss of annoyance.
“I’m reading aloud. It’s a play. The teacher said it was better read aloud.” She made another grab for the cat, but he was already gone, streaking along the landing towards her bedroom. She scuttled after him on hands and knees, listening for any sign that her mother was climbing further.
“Come where I can see you.” Her mother sounded suspicious. “You haven’t been in my room, have you?”
“No, just coming out of the loo.”
“Because if you want to try some make-up or anything, that’s fine, it’s great, but I’d like you to ask, so I can help -”
“No, it’s -” Kate broke off as the door to her room slammed shut in front of her, and from behind it came a chorus of thuds and crashes.
“It’s the wind,” she shouted. “It’s okay, it’s just the wind -” she scrambled to her feet, grabbed the door handle, and threw it open.
Chester shot through the bedroom door with his ears back, hoping he was going to find an empty room. Instead, Mitch was hunkered on the floor, watching the Auld Scratty as he pulled the grill off a heating vent.
“What’re you doing?” Chester hissed. “We need to get out of here now!”
“He’s just getting his stuff,” Mitch started, and the Auld Scratty threw a panicked look at Chester, flung the grill aside and dived headfirst into the vent.
“Stop him!” Chester bellowed, and Mitch bounced up like a furry jack in the box. He grabbed the Auld Scratty’s bushy tail in his teeth just as he vanished into the floor, and hauled backwards. The ginger cat stepped back as the creature came rocketing out of the vent, turning over on himself and scratching for Mitch’s face. The cat spat his tail out hurriedly and jumped away, and the Scratty launched itself off the the floor and onto the desk, where he started flinging books and pens and a half-full glass of water at the two cats.
“’He’s just getting his stuff’?” Chester said.
“Never mind. Let’s just get the little git out of here.” Chester shoulder-barged the door, slamming it shut as he heard Kate shuffling to it along the floor. Mitch had already chased the Scratty off the desk and onto the bookshelves, where he’d found more ammunition, and Chester ducked a well-aimed copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He nodded at Mitch. It was a small, sharp movement, and the other cat didn’t even acknowledge it, just moved as Chester did, with the ancient, connected precision of pack hunters.
The Auld Scratty chittered, showing his yellow teeth, and tried to throw a book at each cat at the same time. The cats avoided them effortlessly, jumping in fluid synchronisation as the creature scrabbled for more missiles. They hit the bookshelf with forepaws on the shelf beneath the Scratty and vaulted upwards, all silent muscular motion, teeth and paws closing around the creature. They fell backwards, carrying him with them, and winked out of the room in the instant before they hit the floor. As Kate flung the door open she had a confused sense of motion, of something – or somethings – being there and not there, seen then gone again in an instant. For some reason it made her think of rain and play houses in the quiet streets of upmarket London. Then the movement became something rather more real, and she gave a helpless little shout as the bookshelf plunged forwards, smashing into the floor with an ominous splintering of wood.
“Kate!” her mother shouted, and she heard quick footsteps on the stairs.
“Oh, no,” she whispered.
Chester appeared from the shadows under her desk while she was reading, and she put down her book to glare at him. “What’d you do?” she demanded. “Mum totally freaked out.”
He looked from her to the bookshelf, now leaning a little drunkenly to one side, then jumped onto the bed and let his ears be scratched.
“Seriously – and all the stuff knocked off my desk, too. Was there a rat?”
He purred, and started to bed into the duvet.
“And my Alice in Wonderland and Wind in the Willows are missing. You telling me a rat took them?”
The cat just purred more loudly, and rolled onto his side, nipping her fingers with gentle teeth.
“You’re useless,” she told him, and went back to her book.
“You’re kidding me, right?” the Auld Scratty said. “I mean, ginger is a total soldier, I get that, but you’re cool. You’re really going to leave me here?”
Mitch sighed. “Plenty to eat here.”
“Baked beans! Crappy own-brand baked beans at that!” The creature pointed at the offending can, then closed the cupboard door. “I’d become used to a certain standard, I had.”
“Bollocks. You’d barely been there a few days.”
“Still.” The Scratty sighed, and sat down on the kitchen counter, hairy legs dangling. “So, tell me. What gives – is it about the girl?”
“Nothing to do you with you, Stinky.”
He ignored the insult. “I got a feeling off her – I dunno. Is she a bit different?”
“Just eat your baked beans and leave it alone.”
“No, really. It is her, isn’t it? There’s something about her. Why are you two so interested? And why you, and not the Watch?”
Mitch stood, and in the dimness of the room his pupils were huge, teeth suddenly uncomfortably sharp looking. The Scratty drew his legs up, shrinking to the back of the counter. “I said, nothing to do with you. You forget the girl, and you forget the house.”
“Got it.” The creature stayed where he was, back pushed against the wall, and flinched as the cat jumped up next to him. Mitch’s head hung low between his shoulders, and he took a slow, deliberate step forwards, so the Scratty could feel the wash of his breath.
“If I even think that you told anyone about her, if there’s even a rumour about her, from anywhere, I’ll find you. I know your scent. I’ll smell you out and drop you in the Inbetween and let the beasts suck your bones.” The words were smooth, an oily, hungry hiss. A promise.
“I won’t! I won’t!” There was no use talking treaties, no use begging for the protection of the Watch – this graceful cat with his laidback manners had transformed into something else entirely, something teethed and clawed and wound about with threat and violence, and it seemed to the creature that utter capitulation was the only sensible option. “I promise!”
“Damn straight you do.” Mitch kept his eyes on the Scratty for a moment longer, his teeth all but touching the creature’s nose, then straightened up and gave himself a little shake. “Well. Bon appetit and all that.” He gave the Scratty a perfectly civilised nod, then was gone, stepping into the Inbetween while the air rushed to fill the cat-size gap he left behind with a breathless sort of pop.
The Auld Scratty stayed where he was for a little longer, then got up shakily and took a can of baked beans from the cupboard. Baked beans were fine. He liked baked beans. And there was some cooking sherry by the stove. Now, that seemed like a fine idea. Very fine indeed. Because he was quite happy to forget the girl, but forgetting that voice and those teeth might take a little help. He grabbed the bottle in one hand and the can in the other, and retreated into the comforting darkness of the walls of the house, while in a town a long way away the girl slept, and the cats watched, and everything settled once more into an uneasy version of peace.
If you’d like to know a little more about Auld Scratties, head over to the blog here.