Tom’s paws pounded through a greasy puddle, rippling the orange lights in its reflection. The red eyes of a car’s hazard lights blazed in the distance, rounding the corner and slipping away from view. He looked wildly around: the parked cars, the trimmed hedges, the occasional splash of colour from a lit-up window, it all looked the same. He was sure he knew these streets, but seeing the world from cat’s eyes, everything seemed so much bigger and scarier, not at all familiar.
In spite of his thick black and white coat, he shivered, shaking off a few pellets of dew. This was hopeless. He considered retracing his steps back home, but knew he couldn’t: what would Puzzle do to him? Besides, he didn’t have time to waste: it was Saturday night, and he only had until midday Tuesday to turn back into a human and stop Muezza winning the company. In fact, the sooner the better: he needed to plan his presentation, too.
But a cold fog was rolling in, and the streetlamps seemed to be nothing more than ghostly orbs suspended in the air. Tom gnashed his teeth in frustration. What little hope he had of finding his way through the suburban maze had vanished, and on top of that, he was starving.
To his luck, however, many aromas clung to the night, each as delicious as the last as each house settled in for an evening meal. Tom’s stomach growled, and he thought longingly of the good food crammed in his kitchen. There was nothing for it: he’d have to scavenge something. With a grimace he recalled waking up on occasional mornings to find his bin bags at the end of the drive had been torn open in the night, old bits of food strewn everywhere. Would he have to resort to that?
But one smell rose above all the others and wiped such worries away. It was a smell soaked with flavour, and whatever it was, there was a lot of it – and more importantly, out in the open. He bounded ahead, following his nose. Perhaps someone had left a bowl of cat food out for their pet? At this point, he’d even take that.
Such thoughts were struck from him, however, when the smell led him right up to an abandoned, creaky old house. No wonder the smell seemed outside: the glassless windows gazed at him, revealing nothing but darkness within. Well, at least he knew where he was now, and even as a human this place scared him: officially, this was 19 Bubastis Drive, but to everyone else, this was the House of Horrors. Tom had long ago decided never to touch the place: it was just too creepy, and even if he did, its reputation was so widespread nobody would dare take it up. It was dead land, in more ways than one…
But that smell! It was so good, just too good to pass up. Kids often broke into the house and camped overnight as a dare. Some of the tough kids from school did it once, and didn’t stop boasting about it for months. Perhaps there were a group in their now, cooking something over a makeshift fire. No firelight, though. Maybe a gas stove, then – kids were pretty savvy with gadgets these days…
His stomach gave another stubborn rumble, and willed his legs forward. He’d just have a look. That couldn’t do any harm, could it? If it looked too risky to steal any food, he’d leave. No harm done. Easy.
He looked up at the door; boarded up many times, and broken into just as much. It creaked as it clung to its splintering hinges. The bottom corner was torn away where it had been kicked. He slipped inside.
The house was silent, and pitch-black, though his cat-eyes seemed to see through the darkness quite clearly: the half-collapsed staircase, the peeling wallpaper, the gaping mouth of the antiquated fireplace…and not a human to be seen or heard. Yet still that smell was as strong as ever. Remembering the last time he let his curiosity lead him down an unknown trail, he padded warily across the damp lounge carpet, to the centre of the spacious room. There, he stumbled across a small pile of scrap food: cold chicken legs; bits of ham; some stolen pouches of cat food, clawed awkwardly open. He had to admit that even this looked appetising, but this wasn’t what was causing the smell. He walked around the scrap pile and there he found what made the luscious aroma.
Dead mice. And rats. And the occasional bird.
Tom squeaked in horror, and turned away. Why? He yelled in his mind, why does this smell so nice? This is vile! Were his animal instincts telling him that these killed creatures were actually more delicious than anything else he’d scented on the way here? He turned defiantly away, fighting his gut feelings. He’d take something from this pile of scraps any day, even the cat food –
Tom froze. The call came from somewhere in the house, echoing around him.
“Oh, way to go Tips,” A different voice scolded, “You expecting an answer or something? What if it’s prey? You’ll scare it off!”
“Leave it out, Apples: I didn’t see you catching anything when we did our rounds. Don’t want to get those pretty claws of yours dirty or – ow!”
Tom scrambled wildly around, crashing into the mound of food. He tumbled towards the door, stopping only to shake off the string of sausages knotted around his tail. He belted for the exit, and –
“Oof!” he crashed into a wall of fur and stumbled back onto the carpet, sending up a plume of dust. He descended into a sneezing fit, staggering blindly around until he cornered himself. When he shook the last of the dust from his muzzle, he gazed blearily around, watching in despair as big cats emerged from the darkness, eyes glowing, closing in. His throat closed up in fear; he couldn’t even explain himself or cry for mercy.
A lithe black cat with white paws and splats of white fur on his nose and tail stepped forward.
“Hey there!” he said brightly, “I’m Tips. What’s your name, kit?”
“Tips, you furball!” a dusty coloured cat pushed Tips aside, “This cat is a stranger. He could be dangerous. Maybe even spying for the Smokies.”
“Oh, come now, Apples,” a booming voice came from the back (Tom presumed it was the huge cat who’d blocked his escape), “Look at him! Poor thing looks as though it would faint at the sight of a Smoky cat! Dangerous? I think not.”
“Maybe so, but he’s still in our camp, stealing our food,” Apples insisted, fixing Tom with big, dark eyes.”
“I – I’m not stealing anything!” Tom’s throat came unstuck at last, “I’m just hungry, I smelled food and I followed it. I didn’t eat a thing. Look, I’m sorry, I’ll just go.”
Another cat stepped forward, a wide-shouldered tabby; “Go?” he rasped, “Just like that? I don’t think so. A stranger comes wondering into our midst, reeking of humans, snoops around, then wants to leave suddenly? Highly suspect, I say!”
There was a murmur of agreement, and the pack of cats closed in around Tom. He backed further into the corner, looking desperately for an escape route.
“Hold up there, Clawdius,” said Tips, sniffing the air, “That’s not all he smells of. Let’s see, now…”
Tips walked straight up to Tom and sniffed his fur, even giving him a couple of licks on his neck-wound. Tom stayed deadly still, feeling the fur on his back stand on end.
“Puzzle?” Tips whispered, then louder, “He has Puzzle’s scent on him. Why does he –”
“Because he’s my brother.”
Every cat spun around to see a cat silhouetted in the nearest window ledge, looking down on the scene with golden eyes piercing the night.
“Puzzle?” Apples flicked her tail in frustration, “He’s your brother? Really?” She looked from the big, graceful Toyger cat perched above to Tom, who quivered in the corner. It was obvious what Apples was implying.
“Half-brother,” Puzzle added, leaping down and pushing her way through the crowd of cats to stand by Tom, “He’s from a younger litter. His name’s Tick. He’s not as young as he looks, he was just the runt of the litter.”
Tom bit back a protest, knowing it was best to play along.
“Well…your brother just waltzed into our camp and helped himself to our scrapstock.” Clawdius croaked.
“I told you, I didn’t –” Tom stepped forward, ready to argue, but Puzzle silenced him with a bat of the paw, scooping him behind her.
“I’m sorry,” Puzzle bowed her head to the cats, “Tick was abandoned recently; luckily I recognised my own scent on him. He’s still new to the territories and our ways, so please forgive him.”
Tom was instantly thrown a lot of sympathetic glances. He had to hand it to her, Puzzle was good at lying – or was she? Her story wasn’t a million miles from the truth.
Apples’ hard glare finally softened, and her ears perked up again. “Well…alright. I trust you, Puzzle. If Tick needs any extra training, I’d only be too glad to help.”
Tom couldn’t help wondering if that was a friendly offer or a disguised threat. Tips stepped forward, bowing his head to Tom, his eyes sparkling with energy.
“Welcome to Cobby Clan, Tick!” he beamed, “All these cats are part of our Clan. We just prefer to be called the Cobbies.”
By now the group was breaking up, some huddling into smaller groups to gossip, others heading to the scrapstock to eat.
“You’re so hungry I can smell it,” said Tips, his voice full of concern, “Come on, let’s get you a bite to eat.”
“We’ll join you in a moment, Tips,” said Puzzle warmly.
“Okay!” Tips bounded away to join the other cats around the food, chatting animatedly and fidgeting.
Tom let out a deep breath. “Thanks Puzzle, that was a cl –”
Before he knew it he was wheeling through the air, limbs flailing, and then he hit the floor, Puzzle’s front paws pinning him firmly down.
“Next time, thank me by listening to me!” she hissed, eyes raging, “You’re lucky you just ran into my Clan! If you’d met any other cat, you’d have little to be thankful for.”
“Ouch! Okay, okay, I’m sorry!” he squealed, “I won’t do it again!”
With a grunt, she let him go, and padded forward a few spaces. “Now we’ll have to play along with this story,” Puzzle sighed, “In case anyone asks you, I’m a Bigtail, the third highest rank in the Cobbies.”
Tom forced himself to digest the facts: Bigtail, third highest. Seeing how many cats there were, it seemed like a lot of responsibility. No wonder she was out and about so much. Tom scrambled to his feet and sat next to Puzzle.
“You can’t let these cats know who you really are,” she continued quietly, “I’ve had to fight some of these cats away from trying to get to you – my own Clan! That’s how much they hate Tom Verbrisser – the Nestbreaker, they call you.”
“Right,” Tom said quickly, “So I’m called Tick now, am I? Why?”
“Because you’re small and annoying,” she replied flatly, and she stalked away to join Tips at the scrapstock. Tom sat stunned for a moment, then followed her.
“Help yourself,” Tips said, pushing a cold, half-eaten chicken drumstick his way.
“Th-thanks,” Tom said weakly. Feeling a few eyes watching him, he knew he couldn’t get out of it: he leant down and tore off a chunk of meat with his sharp teeth. To his surprise, it tasted good, and he happily wolfed down another couple of mouthfuls before his ears picked up the conversation between Tips and Puzzle.
“She wants us there before moonpeak,” said Tips through a mouthful, “Not all of us, though: just you, me, Malt and a couple of others. A junior ranking cat, perhaps.”
“What’s the problem this time?” Puzzle sighed wearily, “I hope Sir Paws isn’t getting Odd-Eye worked up over something petty again. Remember when he wanted to declare all-out war against the Leafies? Because he found their scent all over our territory?”
“Yep, turned out to be all the autumn leaves sweeping across the streets from the Big Green,” Tips replied with a chuckle, “As if that wasn’t bad enough, he’s made the same mistake every year. We should make an event out of it: the Annual Fight-Picking Festival.”
“No need to invite the Smokies to that,” said Puzzle dryly, “Maybe that’s what this meeting’s about. I guess she wants us at the Cobby headquarters?”
“Isn’t this your headquarters?” Tom ventured, curious to the workings of the Clan.
“Oh, this old place? Nah,” Tips said, drawing himself up with pride, “We have lots of camps all over our territory, all around this maze of human nests west of the Big Green. Our headquarters to the far west of our land; Cobby Farm, where Sir Paws lives.”
Tom knew the farm well; it wasn’t too far from Tom’s house, well inside the suburbs. The farm was surrounded on all sides by roads, railways, houses and factories, yet it remained this little piece of the countryside, nestled quietly amongst the hustle and bustle. He’d tried many times to convince the owners to sell up and leave, offering generous sums of money, but they’d have none of it. Some people were just too set in their ways.
“It has a big old barn and all kinds of places to hide and hunt, and the humans don’t seem to mind us visiting,” Tips went on, “they seem to like us catching the rats.”
“We’d better get going,” said Puzzle, eyeing the cold moonlight spilling through the windows. “We’ll call on Malt on the way. Let’s see…” she cast her gaze around the cats milling about, “Apples, will you come with us to H.Q.? It might be important, for once.”
Mumbling, Apples skulked over, clipping Tom over the ear with her bushy tail.
“I’ll take Tick too,” Puzzle added.
“What?” Apples growled, “You can’t be serious? We need to take someone useful.”
“Hey!” Tom snapped, “I can be useful! You haven’t even given me a ch–”
“And what’s more, he’s not even a Cobby,” Apples went on, not even acknowledging him.
“Not yet,” Puzzle corrected calmly, “I intended to introduce Tick to Odd-Eye at some point: this seems as good a time as any. And you know as well as I do that the Cobbies need new cats, thanks to the Nestbreaker.”
Tom blanched in fear, but it was hidden under his fur, so nobody noticed. Apples gave a shrug.
“Alright,” she said grudgingly, “I guess everyone has to start somewhere.”
“Then it’s settled: Tips, Tick, Apples and I will head for Cobby Farm,” said Puzzle crisply, “We’ll meet up with Malt on the way. Clawdius, you’re in charge of Oldnest Camp while I’m gone.”
Tom heard a “Will do,” from somewhere nearby.
“Swifty? Lightfoot? Where are you?”
Two lean cats sped from the darkness so quickly they might as well have appeared.
“Yes, Puzzle?” they chanted in unison.
“You two are our fastest cats. I’m sending you as runners to our Alley-copse Camp and Over-river Camp: ensure all is well, gather news, then head to the Farm so you can relay anything important to Odd-Eye and Sir Paws. We’ll see you there,” she added with a bow of the head. Swifty and Lightfoot returned the gesture, then leapt towards the doors, moving so fast that Tom could feel the musty air swirling where they’d been. Tom looked at Puzzle with admiration and pride: his own Puzzle commanded with such ease and authority. It was easy to see why she was third highest rank in this Clan.
Puzzle turned to look at him, and he quickly looked down at his paws, feeling his face prickle with embarrassment. She walked over, and he looked up into her eyes, shining in the darkness.
“Something on your mind?”
“Nothing. It’s just,” he struggled to find the words, “well…thanks. For rescuing me. Again.”
“Don’t mention it,” she said, purr rising in her throat, “Comes with the responsibility of being a member of a feral Clan. I’m no exception,” then she added, “and you won’t be either.”
“What do you mean?”
“I told you, every cat is a member of a Clan around here,” she explained, “And if you’re not a member, then you’re not Tick: you’re Tom Verbrisser. And that really isn’t a good person to be amongst these cats.”
Tom looked around at the cats chatting happily in groups, cleaning themselves and each other. How many of them had he turfed up from their homes? How many of them had tried to get to him as a human? He suddenly felt even more small and vulnerable than before.
A tail brushed under his chin, and he leapt in shock. Puzzle chuckled.
“Come on,” she said, summoning Tips and Apples with a flick of her tail, “It’s time I introduced you to our Leader.”
The cats bundled towards the door, squeezing in single file through the gap and out into the night. The fog had cleared, and the air was icy and as clear and crystal as the winking stars. As Tom followed Puzzle, Tips and Apples through the streets, leaping over low bushes and creeping across empty backstreets, he felt curiously happy and peaceful, and his own worries were pushed to the back of his mind.