The big ginger tom was sniffing around the back door when Holly came into the kitchen, phone still cradled against her ear as she rinsed her wine glass out.
“No, Angie. Seriously, I have stuff to do Friday. Thanks for the invite, though.” She crouched down to rub the cat’s head, and he gave her a rusty mewl. “Yes, I’ll see you Sunday at Mum’s. Yes. Yes. No. I’ll bring – I dunno, something. A cake. Fine, a diet cake.” She rolled her eyes at Apple, and he pawed the door pointedly. “I’ll buy it, okay? Okay. Bye. Yes. Bye. Bye.” She hung up, sighing. “Who knew Sunday lunch could be such a production, Apps? Who knew.” He regarded her with orange eyes, then scratched the door again. She shook her head. “It’s not outside time.”
She put the kettle on, although she did think she’d rather another glass of wine after speaking to Angie. She’d always rather another glass of wine after speaking to her. “My sister is bad for my health,” she told Apple, and he huffed at her, tail flicking irritably from side to side as he paced in front of the door. “What’s up with you, kitten?”
He pawed the door again, and gave her a look which said pretty clearly that she was being thick. She frowned. Marla and Trix had followed her to the kitchen and sat themselves in the hall doorway, unblinking eyes fixed on the back door, ears pricked and heads slightly lowered, as if they’d spotted movement through the frosted glass. The kettle clicked off, but she didn’t move to fill her mug. There was an uneasy twist of dread in her belly – she knew the door was locked, it wasn’t like there was anyone inside, but what if someone was just beyond the door, standing in the early winter dark, just standing and staring and watching and waiting?
Apple mewled again and she jumped, her heart rattling into hectic rhythm. Jesus, she needed to stop watching Penny Dreadful. She’d have decided it was some demon-witch out there in a minute. She strode to the door before she could change her mind, unlocked it and jerked it open, one foot already out to stop Apple making a break into the rainy darkness. He retreated hurriedly to where the she-cats waited, and she scowled at him. “Nice, dude. Thanks for the support.” But there was no movement in the tiny back garden. No demon-witches or werewolves hanging out in the bedraggled veggie patch, at least not that she could see. It was hardly a nice night for it. She started to close the door again, and something squeaked. She paused, ignoring the low rumble of Apple’s growl behind her, listening. Another squeak. She stepped out into the cold barefoot, stifling a little gasp as the rain hit her face. It was edging on for sleet.
“Kitty?” she called. “Here, puss puss puss?”
Another uncertain little squeak, then a bedraggled kitten staggered out of the shadows and stared up at her.
“Oh, well. Look at you.” She crouched down, rubbing her fingers together and making encouraging little noises, and he picked his way closer. He was shivering wildly, and she let him sniff her fingers, her voice soft. “Just you, is it?” He squeaked again, almost soundless, and there was an answering mew from the flowerbed. She waited, ignoring the pinch of cold on her nose and feet, and a moment later another kitten, fur plastered flat by the rain, tottered towards her, followed by two more.
“Oh,” she said. “This is going to be a full house.”
The three cats remained in the doorway to the living room as Holly fussed over the kittens, drying them with tea towels and trying to confine them to a hurriedly assembled cat bed made up of a throw and a couple of hot water bottles. They followed her around instead, squeaking, trying to climb her pj’s with their sharp little claws, complaining and begging. A little tabby wandered too close to the big cats and Marla hissed furiously, backing away, her pupils huge.
“Stop that,” Holly told her, picking the stray kitten up and depositing her back on the blanket. “It’s not like you weren’t one once.” Marla just growled, her tail flicking.
The kittens weren’t interested in the cat’s wet food, or even in some beaten egg. Holly sat cross-legged on the floor, trying to coax them to the bowls. “Come on. Just a little bit. You must be starving.” But they just trundled around the kitchen investigating, and eventually she rubbed some egg on her fingers and picked up the little black kitten, the one that had come to her first. He was a little bigger than his siblings, and his legs stuck out rigidly as she scooped him up. “Here we go. Try this.” She offered him her fingers, and he nuzzled them curiously, smearing egg all over his nose and chin. Holly sighed. But it was too late to call the vet or the RSPCA, so she was just going to have to do what she could. She looked at her own cats, still watching suspiciously from the doorway. “You could help, you know,” she told them. “You could – Ow! Ow!”
She tried to tug the kitten off her finger, but he had both paws wrapped around it now, tiny claws dug into the flesh, and his teeth were well and truly embedded. Holly rested him in her lap, cursing whoever had dumped the damn things in her garden, and grabbed the scruff of his neck, lifting him and giving him a gentle shake. “Let go. Let go.” He curled up helplessly, paws releasing, and she managed to prise her finger out of his mouth, seeing blood staining his teeth and the soft fur of his jaw. “Little brat.” It wasn’t bad – it hadn’t even hurt that much after the initial shock – but blood was welling up in the neat punctures and dripping onto the floor. She put the kitten down and got up, examining the wound as she crossed to the sink, squeezing her finger to help it bleed out a little. Bloody vicious little thing.
With the water running, she didn’t hear Apple growling. It wasn’t until she heard the spit and snarl of the cat directly behind her that she turned, ready to scold him for being a grumpy old man. Instead she stopped, her finger raised like a schoolteacher, blood and water spiralling down it. The four kittens stood staring at her, barely a pace away. Staring at her finger, more precisely. The drops of blood on the floor were gone. And Apple stood between her and them, his ears back, lips drawn away from his worn teeth, rumbling a steady warning. The two she-cats were circling the room, adding their own complaints, hair spiked up along their backs.
“Apple?” Holly said, her voice not as steady as she would have liked. Although nothing had happened. Not really. The kitten had bitten her, as kittens do sometimes, and she must’ve just stepped on the blood droplets, and they were hungry, and that’s why they were looking at her like that. As she watched, the black kitten tried a hiss at the older cat, and she could see blood matted onto his jaw still. She shivered, feeling suddenly tired and cold, aware that her hair was still damp from her little jaunt into the garden. She grabbed the tea towel, keeping her eyes on the kittens (just in case, but just in case of what? Did she think they were going to rush her? No, of course not, that was stupid), and flung it over them. Apple spat in surprise, backing into her legs, then lunged forward as the little tabby made a rush at him. His heavy paw caught the kitten hard enough to send her rolling sideways across the floor, and Holly snapped, “Enough!” The old tom didn’t look at her or move, his tail slapping across her ankles as he growled. The kittens were mewling unhappily, and Holly pinched the bridge of her nose. She should put them in the carry cases, stop them getting stuck behind the stove or something, but she couldn’t be bothered with it. Her thumb was throbbing in protest now. She looked at her furious, beautiful cats and said, “We’re done. Bedtime, kids.”
She grabbed a packet of hobnobs and some cat treats, then led the way out of the kitchen. The cats retreated carefully, still growling, skirting the kittens as they emerged from under the tea towel as if they were something poisonous and dangerous. She pulled the door shut as her unwelcome guests began to cry, and went to sit beside the gas fire, wishing she’d thought to bring the wine in with her. She felt like she needed it.
Holly woke sometime in the dim reaches of the night to a chorus of rumbling cats. They’d been restless, slow to sleep, prowling around the bedroom and out into the hall, every gust of wind making them jump and flinch. She’d caught their anxiety, despite the whiskey she’d had before bed. She’d had to drink it out of the dusty, ink-stained mug from her desk, but she hadn’t wanted to go back into the kitchen. She didn’t want to disturb the kittens, she told herself, thinking of the unblinking scrutiny of all those yellow eyes, and wondering, weren’t kitten’s eyes still blue at this age? Either way, she’d just rinsed the mug in the bathroom and poured a generous slug into it, and drunk it in front of some crappy American sitcom, and when she went to bed she’d walked past the kitchen door without looking at it. Let them make a mess. It’d clean.
Now she shushed the cats, pushing herself up in the bed, mouth sticky with the unaccustomed whiskey. “What’s wrong?” she asked. The cats kept up their steady chorus of warning, and now she could dimly see the three of them arrayed across the foot of the bed like gargoyles on a roof top, snarling and muttering at something just out of sight. Her heart gave that little tick upwards again, and she felt heat flush her face. The kitchen door had been shut. There was no way the kittens could’ve got it open. Not even her own cats could get it open. She fumbled for the lamp, and Marla rushed at her, hissing a warning. Holly jerked her arm back, and the kitten that had made a lunge for her fell to the floor with a squawk. Marla gave her an exasperated look, then went back to patrolling the edge of the bed, while Holly gazed at the lamp longingly. How the hell had the damn thing even jumped that high? It was a kitten, for god’s sake!
She took a slow breath, letting it out through her nose, giving it a yoga-count. This was ridiculous. They were kittens. At worst she’d get a few scratches. They weren’t going to jump up here and eat her alive. She hoped. She reached out and hit the light switch above the bed rather than the lamp, squinting against the glare, and checked over the edge of the bed for furry attackers. Nothing. She considered it for a moment, then gathered her legs under her and took a jump to the middle of the floor. Four tiny bodies came rushing out from under the bed, clamouring for food, and she grabbed her dressing gown off the chair, spun back and flung it over them. The squeaking became rather more muffled, if no less frantic, and she bundled up the whole squirming lot then dumped in the laundry basket.
“There,” she said to the cats, who still looked bushed-up and unhappy. “Tomorrow, we’re off to the shelter. No wonder someone dumped them.” She grabbed the basket and headed downstairs before they could get free.
In the morning, the kittens were waiting outside the bedroom door. Last night, she had pushed the laundry basket into the kitchen, shut the door again (wriggling the knob to make sure it was really shut), then climbed the stairs (how they got up those she had no idea) and got back into bed. After about ten minutes of watching the door she’d got up again, shut it, and pushed the chair behind it. If they got through that, they were truly super-kitties. She’d fallen asleep under the watchful eyes of her cats.
Now, she shooed the kittens ahead of her, watching them falling and tumbling on the bare wood of the stairs, utterly fearless. She’d put her fake Uggs and a pair of jeans on, and the kittens seemed slightly less intimidating with some thick fabric between them and her. They barrelled into the kitchen and she frowned, shaking them off as they tried to climb her jeans.
“What’re we going to do with you?” she asked. “What can we get you to eat?” They squalled at her, mouths open like a quartet of hungry fledglings, and she opened the fridge to see if there was any inspiration inside. A steak – tonight’s dinner – sat bleeding on a plate, and she remembered the splashes of blood on the wooden floor the night before. She knew she hadn’t stood in it. She’d been barefoot, she’d have smeared it everywhere. She looked back at the kittens – the black one had climbed to her knee already – then took the plate out and set it on the floor.
She didn’t even have time to get the wax paper off before the kittens were on it, purring like little feral sewing machines, sharp teeth nipping and ripping through the paper, hungry tongues lapping at the blood pooled on the plate. Holly straightened up, her face twisted in distaste. “That – that’s not normal kitten behaviour.” The cats, watching from the doorway, didn’t offer any disagreement.
It was an odd sort of day. Holly skirted the kittens cautiously as she made her own breakfast, but once they were sated on the meat they crawled under the table, as far from the pale sunlight creeping in the windows as they could get, and fell asleep in a little fluffy pile of distended bellies and splayed paws. She put the meat back in the fridge for later, and fed the cats out in the hall, then went to her desk to start work.
All day the kittens slept. The RSPCA said they couldn’t come unless it was desperately urgent – could she hold onto them for another day? She agreed grudgingly, looking at the three grown cats perched on the top of the bookshelf, eyes on the kitchen door. You expected disruptions with kittens, but this was something else. This was most certainly something else. Her punctured thumb throbbed as she worked, and she supposed she should go to the GP, but she wasn’t leaving the kittens alone with the cats. She doused it in hydrogen peroxide instead, and hoped that’d do. Hoped they weren’t rabid.
As dark drew down, the kittens emerged stretching and hungry. She dropped the meat in front of them, and watched with fascination as they attacked it again – less eagerly, though, as if they’d rather something a little fresher. Meat on the hoof, maybe. She sighed, and took a sandwich through to the living room, closing the door firmly behind her. If they were here much longer, she was going to have to think of something else.
She was reading when she heard the kitchen door open, and saw the cats’ attention sharpen, their backs rising. She pushed herself out of her chair and reached for the oven gloves she’d put on the side table. “This is altogether enough of this,” she called. “You’ve eaten better than anyone else in this house today -” her voice dried in her throat as the kittens padded clumsily into the room, which was as expected, but they were followed by a man, which wasn’t. The doors and windows were all locked, she knew that. There’d been no sound of breaking glass, and only Angie had a key. And her sister would most certainly not have let this guy in. She’d probably have crossed the street to avoid him. He looked dirty. Unhealthy. There was no other way to describe him. His hair was unwashed and greasy, his polo shirt pilled and stained where it stretched across his belly, and there was a hole in the knee of his khaki trousers. He looked nervous, blinking uncomfortably under the lights, and some nasty sort of skin condition was spreading a flaky rash up his neck and into his hairline.
Holly found her voice before he did. “What the hell are you doing in my house?” she demanded.
He blinked at her, started to say something, cleared his throat and said, with a dramatic flick of his head (which sent a disturbing amount of loose skin drifting into the air), “I – am vampire!”
Holly stared at him, then nodded. “Well, good for you. Now get out before I call the cops.”
He looked bewildered, then composed himself. “No – you are under my control. You will bend to my will!”
He was staring at her with bulging eyes, and she frowned. “I’m sorry. It’s not working.” The kittens had surrounded her, climbing her legs, and she pulled the oven gloves on to remove them. While she was distracted he rushed her clumsily, bumping into the coffee table, and she jumped back, putting the armchair between them. “What’re you doing?”
“You’re under my control!” he insisted. “You will obey me!” Trix hissed at him from the top of the bookshelf, and he flinched, raising an arm to protect himself.
“Wow. Okay, look, I know this is a thing, where people think they’re vampires, but -”
“I am vampire!” he roared at her, and she stumbled backwards, hitting the shelving behind her. His face was contorted, canines blossoming into fangs that sliced into his lips, sending blood trickling dark across his chin. He swiped at it, trembling. “Ow.”
“Okay. Okay, you’re a vampire.” She looked at the kittens, who had clambered to the back of the chair. They teetered there, perched like sparrows, their own fangs overly long and sharp-looking. “Are these yours?”
He straightened. “Yeth.” The fangs gave him a lisp, and made him look grotesque rather than threatening.
“Why? Why would you do that to poor little kittens?” She could feel the same bubbling fury she’d felt when she’d found Marla, with her broken legs and burns. “What’d they ever do to you?”
“Well, the thing ith -”
“Go on, tell me! What else d’you do in your spare time, nibble on old ladies?”
“No! No, the kittenth are like my familiarth!”
“Witches. Witches have familiars. Vampires have coffins.”
He shook his head, worked his jaw a couple of times, and the fangs snapped away. “It’s because no one’ll invite me in,” he said plaintively. “I thought when you became a vampire you’d be irresistible to women. I’m not. I’m just me – but dead.”
“So, people’ll always take kittens in, then the kittens’ll let me in.” He gave her a embarrassed smile, blood still smudged on his chin. “I mean, it worked, right?”
Holly stared. The cats were nothing but hackles and teeth glaring down at him from the bookshelf, and he kept eyeing them nervously. He really was a very sorry sort of vampire, but it didn’t change the fact that he’d been unspeakably cruel to the kittens, and had made some half-baked attempt to eat her.
“Now, come to me, woman,” he said, trying for imperious but sounding peevish. “You are mine!”
“No,” she said. “And, in fact, I didn’t invite you in.”
“No, wait! Don’t! Just – just give me a nibble, go on! I can’t even get the hypnosis thing right!”
“Ew, no. And it’s called glamouring.” She pointed at the door. “You are not welcome in this house. Not now, not ever. Out.” There was a roar of doors slamming open, a scream of wind that toppled the kittens onto the seat of the chair and spun newspapers to the floor, and then the vampire was gone. Holly looked up at the cats, then walked to the back door. They followed her, still wary of the kittens that trailed behind them. She stopped in the doorway, and looked at the vampire sitting on the path, inspecting the gravel rash on his hands.
He looked up at her. “Well, that was completely uncalled for. I guess I’ll take my kittens and go, then.”
She looked at the little fluffballs, crowding around her legs, peering out at him with those luminous yellow eyes. “No,” she said. “I think I’ll keep hold of them. In fact, I think they may be a little hungry.” She pointed at him with a blue-painted nail. “Apple, show him what we do to intruders.”
“What? No, I am -”
“Vampire, I know.” Holly watched the big tomcat prowling towards the creature on the path, and made a quick little beckoning motion. A complicated net of roots rose out of the garden and snaked eagerly towards him, the movement disturbing bones that gleamed pale in the moonlight.
“What are you doing? What – what is this?” His voice rose in a scream as the three cats slouched towards him, growing with every step, until they stood as tall as wolves, heads low and movement easy with menace. He tried to scramble to his feet and the plants pulled him back down almost playfully. The kittens were nipping at his trapped hands, and he managed a shriek before the roots slammed his mouth shut.
Holly leaned against the door, meeting his terrified eyes with her own. “Tut, tut,” she said. “Going around preying on poor, defenceless little cat ladies.” She smiled, and it was at once beautiful and far, far more terrifying than the vampire’s grimace had been. “Now, remember today’s lesson – familiars are for witches.”
He tried to scream against the roots holding his mouth closed, and she turned back inside to put the kettle on, humming a quiet, joyful little tune. She’d need to remember to cancel the RSPCA. Vampire kitties! Angie wouldn’t approve, of course, but Mum would love them.