Lovely people, if you subscribe to my newsletter, you will know I have become intimately familiar with the term herding cats in the course of writing the latest Gobbelino London book.
Which, yes, I know is appropriate, and also, yes, I brought it on myself by choosing to write a series about a feline PI. I mean, choosing. ‘Choosing’, really. Some characters are insistent, and anyone who’s ever shared space with a cat knows just how insistent the average feline can be. Their level of willpower is entirely disproportionate to their body mass. Just like their personalities.
Anyhow. Cat herding continues, but the end result is that I’ve ended up with some very fun extra scenes when they all got away on me. Some of these I’ll share with newsletter subscribers only (yes, that’s an incredibly unsubtle hint about how you should sign up here if you haven’t already), but this one is for everyone.
Happy reading, lovely people!
No One Ever Talks About the Book Wolves
By the time we found parking in Ilkley it was past nine, when the bookshop opened. Callum had stripped his scarf off in deference to the car’s patchy heater, so he wound it back on again as we stepped out into the chill of the streets. People bustled about in bright puffer jackets and hiking boots, as if heading off on a Himalayan expedition instead of popping to the shops, and there were more flat caps around than seemed reasonable. The buildings were grey stone, most of them no more than two or three stories, and the shops brightly lit even in the low winter sun. I could smell bread baking, and the sweet green scent of open places.
The bookshop was on a side street that led away from the town centre, and by the time we got there my paws were cold and I’d already slapped one Yorkshire terrier and hissed at a Rottweiler and a sausage dog. Callum had apologised each time, but it was the dogs’ own bloody fault. Reasonable animals don’t go sticking their noses in others’ faces.
And then I smelled it. Smelled the heavy feral scent, all wet hair and exuberance that bordered on abandon, and the feral desire for deep wild places where old laws still held. I stopped short, and Callum glanced back at me.
“What?” he said quietly.
I shook myself off, trying to get my hackles to lay flat. “It’s close.”
“Just up there.” He kept his voice low. “Want to sit this one out?”
Yes. “No.” I made myself start walking again, trotting alongside him as we approached the bookshop door. It wasn’t large, just one big display window looking over the street, crammed with books. Beyond it I could glimpse a sofa with a couple of humans on it, drinking coffee from mismatched mugs. Shelves wound their way back into the building, one of those places that are all nooks and crannies and hidden alcoves. Plenty of places for lurking. I shivered.
There were books on carts to either side of the door, and Callum paused for a moment, running his fingers over the titles.
“Focus,” I said, although my heart wasn’t really in it.
“You want to wait out here?” he asked.
Everything in me was screaming that the answer was yes. Even under the dusty scent of yellowing pages and worlds corralled in words, even under the whiff of rich dark coffee and melted chocolate, I could still smell the were. It set up shivers in my spine and made my tail pouf out despite my best efforts to still it.
But I just said, “No. If you go in there alone you’ll only come out eight hours later with two boxes of books and no info on the case at all.”
“Fair point,” he said. “Lift?”
I considered it. Going into a were den on Callum’s shoulder held a certain appeal, not least a height advantage. But there was also a question of personal dignity, even if Pru and Tam hadn’t turned up yet.
“Let’s just get this over with, shall we?”
Callum nodded and pushed the door open, setting a little bell jangling softly. The scent of coffee, old books, and barely tamed beast washed out, and we walked in.
There was music playing inside the shop, some soft tinkly plinky stuff like you hear in posh department stores. Yes, I’ve been into top department stores. Not with Callum, obviously. He’d never get past the door. But even cats who can’t shift can sneak into most places, because people rarely question cats. We are always where we mean to be, and as long as we’re not obvious about things, humans tend to accept that. And, as it happens, posh department stores sometimes have fancy smoked salmon samples out. Caviar, even, although that’s a bit sticky and weird. There are better parts of the fish to eat than eggs.
Callum wandered into the maze of shelves with his hands in the pockets of his old, long coat, probably to stop himself grabbing books like a papery magpie. It was warm in here, the wood floors soothing on my cold paws. I spotted an old iron radiator on the wall by the door as we walked in, and from deeper in the shop I could hear the low murmur of voices. I peered around a shelf packed with hardbacks at two women leaning toward each other over a small table, a plate of biscuits between them.
“I couldn’t possibly do another date,” one was saying, taking a sip of tea. “He only reads political memoirs!”
“At least he reads,” the other said. “My last date told me she didn’t see the point, since all the decent books were made into movies.”
They both sighed, and the first woman picked up a fat finger of shortbread, scattering crumbs as she took a bite.
“I tell you,” she said indistinctly, “I’m going to have to become a cat lady at this rate.”
“They do seem less trouble,” the other agreed.
I looked up at Callum. The corner of his mouth twitched, and he said in a low voice, “If only they knew.”
I huffed, and we left the women to their relationship woes and headed deeper into the shop. The place was crammed with books, the shelves reaching to the ceiling. Folding stepladders leaned against them in a few places, along with little notices that said, Help yourself – but please ask if you’d like assistance! Each shelf had helpful signs stuck to them, saying things like, This is modern space opera sci-fi. Round the corner for classic sci-fi! Index cards stuck out of individual books with notes recommending them for readers of other books, or suggesting that they were best read in a series or not. There were stairs off to one side, with a sign painted on rough board, Non-fiction this way! Even the wooden floor had arrows painted on it, pointing to various genres, all with an exclamation mark stuck on the end.
“Can tell it’s a were,” I said.
“How?” Callum asked.
“All those exclamation marks. Only a dog’s that excitable.”
“Pretty sure you shouldn’t call a were a dog.”
“Smell like dogs,” I muttered.
Callum ambled deeper into the shop, following an arrow that read, This way to reading fuel! The aisles of the shelves twisted and dog-legged, opening onto little nooks and crannies that were filled with overstuffed armchairs or sofas big enough for two, as long as you didn’t mind getting cosy with each other. Some of them were occupied by people with stacks of books on their laps or the floor next to them, often balancing coffees or teas on the edges of a handy shelf or the arm of the seat. It was a strange mix of clientele. There was a faery with his wings folded tight under a coat that was almost as tatty as Callum’s, reading a book with a mostly naked man on the cover. There was a woman in a dressing gown and sheepskin slippers reading about quantum physics. A dryad in a three-piece suit was reading a horticulture book and tutting loudly, and two kids who looked like they should be in school were squeezed into a sofa together, the hoods of their jumpers up over their heads and their tracksuit bottoms too short to cover their skinny ankles. They were sharing a large slice of lemon cake and reading Hamlet to each other in dramatic voices.
No one seemed to be gnawing on bones or in any danger of being gnawed on. We were evidently dealing with a rather more stealthy breed of were here. Maybe he lured them in with cake and got the scents of the tastiest looking ones so he could stalk them later. Although I supposed that could be bad for business.
We emerged from the shelves to find that the very back of the shop looked out over a garden that was mostly gravel. Through the large window we could see a collection of wooden tables and chairs scattered among half barrels of plants, and flower beds lined the walls. They were all winter-dull, but a woman was sitting at one of the tables, a large blanket wrapped around her and a cigarette burning in a saucer next to a pile of books. She looked up, and her eyes glittered. She was Folk of some sort, but it was hard to tell much else from here. Plenty of bloodlines had dispersed over the years, mixing with humans. It gave to creatures who didn’t quite fit in either world, Folk ignorant of the hidden world and humans who could see things they were told couldn’t exist. Creatures like that tended to fall through cracks in both worlds. The woman at the table didn’t look like she was falling anywhere, though. Throwing other people into cracks, maybe.
There was a wide bench seat inside the window, plus a couple of tables and chairs gathered in front of a counter that was crowned with a large, glossy coffee machine and a whole selection of cake stands, sprouting like multi-coloured mushrooms. There was no one behind the counter, and we looked at each other. Callum started to say something, then we caught the sound of someone humming, along with a wash of that now-familiar, feral scent. I scooted behind Callum’s legs, out of sight, and the were emerged from the stacks, carrying a stack of used plates and cups in one big paw.
Well, paw. Hand, I suppose, but it was a big hand, and possibly a little hairier than was necessary. Not as hairy as his face, though. He had an enormous beard that tended to ginger.
“Oh, hello,” he said to Callum. “What can I get you?”
“Um,” Callum said, glancing at me. I nodded. The stench clung to Ginger like a wet blanket. He was our were. “Tea, please.”
“Not a problem.” The were deposited the used plates on the counter. “Fancy or builder’s?”
“Builder’s,” Callum said, grinning.
The were busied himself with a mug and the kettle, still humming, and I examined him while his back was turned. He was wearing skinny jeans and a green T-shirt that read, Sorry, I’m booked under a drawing of a hand sticking out from under a pile of fallen hardbacks. He was broad-shouldered and flat-bellied, and looked like he spent more time in a gym than a bookshop. I suppose weres have a good metabolism, what with all that running around tearing people to pieces.
The were set the mug on the counter, with a spoon and a saucer. “I’ll let you mash it. No point my doing it and getting it wrong.”
“Sure,” Callum said, taking over the tea as the were fetched milk from a small fridge. “Nice shop.”
“First time here?” the were asked, setting a piece of shortbread next to the mug. I’d scooted closer to the counter while his back was turned, and peered up at him suspiciously.
“Yeah, we don’t usually come out this way.”
“We? Do you need another—“ the were stopped, and I heard him sniff. It was a snuffly, inquisitive sound, and I wondered how quick he was in human form. Or if he’d risk changing with humans in the shop. Either way, I was mapping my exits. Just as a precaution, you know. “You’ve got a cat in here,” he said.
“Well,” Callum started, and the were snatched the mug away from him.
“I don’t allow cats in here.”
Callum looked longingly at the tea, then at the were. “He’s not Watch.”
“How do you know that? Because he told you? You can’t trust cats.”
I peered out from the shelter of the counter, then stepped back where the were could see me – and where I had a straight shot for the front door. “Morning.”
The were growled, a rumbling sound that set my tail off again. “You’re not welcome here.”
“Trust me, dude, I’d rather not be here either. But we have a were problem, and a certain troll told us you might be able to help.”
“Since when does a cat look for help from a were?” he demanded. His scent had intensified, thick and pungent. “Why don’t you just go to the Watch and they can run us out of town, just like always?”
“Oh, run you out of town? Terrifying. The Watch keep killing me. I probably like them less than you do.”
“The Watch, kill a cat? I doubt it.” He almost spat the words, and I caught sight of slightly pointier canines than were usually necessary.
“Then you don’t know them as well as you think you do. I’ve had three lives and they’ve killed me every time. Unpleasantly.”
We glared at each other. My heart was going too fast, and I wasn’t sure if that was memories of the Watch or the presence of the were. My nose was full of his scent, thick and heavy and feral, but at least there was no trace of that other cold steel scent from the day before. A were was enough to deal with. I didn’t want to worry about anything more.
“We really have nothing to do with the Watch,” Callum said. “We’ve lost a … friend, and there are signs weres had been at her house. We just wanted any information you could give us.”
The were’s gazed flicked from me to Callum, then back to me. “You’re definitely not Watch?”
“Cross my heart and hope you die,” I said.
He frowned at me.
“Hope to die,” Callum said.
“I have no desire to die.”
Callum looked at the were. “Sorry. I can’t figure out if he really doesn’t get sayings or is just wilfully obtuse.”
“Your sayings make no sense,” I pointed out.
“Hoping someone else dies does?”
“More than hoping I die.”
The were blinked at us both, then shook his head. “You certainly don’t seem like Watch.”
Callum looked at the tea, then at the were, and grinned hopefully. The were hesitated a moment longer, then handed it over.
“I need cake,” he said. “Want anything?”
“Got any cream?” I asked.
“You just had a cooked breakfast,” Callum said.
“It’s been a stressful morning.”
The were picked up another mug and set it on the coffee machine. “Definitely not Watch,” he said, almost to himself.
Five minutes later we were ensconced at one of the little tables, where the were could keep an eye on both the door to the garden and the aisles of the shelves. He kept his voice low as he said, “What happened with your friend?”
Callum took a sip of tea and sighed appreciatively. “We went to their house to see if we could find them, and the whole place was pretty torn apart. The windows had been busted out, and the cats could smell weres.”
“You sure?” the were asked me.
“You lot are pretty distinctive.”
“That’s unusual behaviour, though. We try not to draw attention to ourselves.”
“All of you?” I asked. “I mean, I know you’re all Bookshop Bob here—“
“Ferdinand,” he said.
“My name’s Ferdinand.”
“Ignore him,” Callum said. “He’s Gobbelino, I’m Callum.”
“Gobbelino?” the were said. “Really?”
I bared one tooth at him. I was becoming less worried he might dismember me and more worried he and Callum were going to start bonding over books. “So you’re all model citizens, then?”
“No,” Ferdinand said, carving a large lump of cake off with a fork. “But are all cats? Are all humans?”
“But we don’t turn into—“
“Gobs, eat your cream,” Callum said. “Ferdinand—“
“You can call me Ferds. Him, I’m not so sure about.” The were took a large gulp of coffee and dabbed foam from his moustache with a napkin.
“I don’t want to be called Ferds,” I muttered. “Gobs is bad enough.”
Callum scowled at me. “Shut up and eat your cream. Ferds, do you have any idea if there’s a … group that might be involved in some riskier stuff? Maybe doing some cash in hand work?”
“You can say pack. A lot of weres do pack up.”
I had a momentary vision of a load of wolves stacking moving crates with household goods.
“So are there any packs that might want to kidnap someone?” Callum asked.
“It’s possible.” Ferds took another forkful of cake. “A lot of us – and certainly all the weres I have contact with – just want a quiet life. Lots of us are vegetarian, and we have the changes under control. Full moon’s the only involuntary change, so we have secure rooms for that. There hasn’t been an attack or a turning by any sensible were for decades.”
“What about unsensible ones?” I asked, licking my chops. It was good cream, rich and silky, and I was probably going to have a stomach ache later.
“Well, there’s always plenty of those, too,” he admitted. “Those in particular do tend to pack up, but they also usually stick to their own territory. Rough areas, or remote spots where they can get on with things undisturbed.”
“Get on with what things? Mauling cattle and nipping maidens?”
Ferds crossed his arms. “You’re very prejudiced.”
“He’s like that with everyone,” Callum said. “No matter how many times he’s proved wrong.”
“Cats,” Ferds said with a sigh, and Callum nodded.
“Cats,” he agreed.
I glared at them both, then said, “Fine. So they don’t maul cattle and nip maidens. What things do unsensible weres get up to, then?”
Ferds shrugged. “Usually anything that needs some muscle and threat.”
“What about Dimly?” Callum asked. “Have you heard of a pack that’s moved in there?”
“Yeah, I have. I don’t think they’re based in Dimly itself, but they’re doing work there. That was pretty recent. There was some big upheaval there over the summer and it left a bit of a gap in the market – they’re taken over running all sorts of contraband. You know, human stuff in, Folk stuff out.”
“Do you know if they’d take on other jobs?” Callum asked.
“Like kidnapping? It’s possible. I don’t know them that well, but most of the packs will diversify to meet the market.”
“Diversify to meet the market? What are they, the capitalists of crime?” I asked.
Ferds snorted, and scrubbed his fingers through his beard. I half expected small birds to pop out of the thing. “You get a pretty good nose for how to fill a niche when most Folk will only deal with you when they have to.”
“You seem to do alright.”
“Even the more acceptable kinds have their outcasts. This is a safe space for all of them.”
I didn’t really have an answer for that. I could’ve done with more safe spaces over the years. Most of the ones I’d found had been safe only in the sense that there was no immediate danger of being eaten by anything. They’d been cold and lonely things, at least until I’d stumbled across Callum. Now they were just cold.
Ferds looked from one of us to the other when we didn’t answer, and his voice was gentler when he spoke again. “I stay clear of the packs. But I do have a contact in Leeds who knows pretty much everyone. She might be able to help you.”
“That would be great,” Callum said.
“Sure.” He got up, brushing cake crumbs off his jeans. “I’ll get her card. Is that all?”
“Yes. Thank you.” Callum glanced at the stacks. “I might just—“
“No,” I said.
“I’m just going to look,” he said, and got up, taking his cup and plate to the counter.
I looked at Ferds, and he shrugged. “Books heal.”
“Books take up money better spent on tuna.”
“There’s more than one sort of hunger,” he said, and cleared the rest of the table. I sighed, and set to grooming my tail. It had almost calmed down, suggesting I was getting used to the stink of weres.
I didn’t know if that was a good thing or not.
Now over to you, lovely people – any good bookshops near you? What’s the best bookshop you’ve been to? And what makes a bookshop special to you?
Let me know in the comments, and don’t forget to sign up for the newsletter for more Gobbelino excerpts and outtakes!