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Authors: Jill Nojack

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BOOK: The Familiar
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As soon as the shop bell rings Natalie out, Kevin bustles to Eunice and hisses across the counter. "You said we'd talk."

"Keep your shirt on." Eunice counts the money in the till once, then counts it again. She's got to be doing it to annoy him. She can't have pulled in more than twenty bucks in cash so far today.

Kevin waits, his foot tapping restlessly on the ancient linoleum floor. Every so often, he gives me an appraising look that glides away before Eunice can catch him.

As choir members go, Robert's boy Kevin is a real wet rag. Other than an aptitude for potions, he has no particular skill with magic, and while he's shrewd, he's not who you'd want in your brain trust. Plus, his lumpy, doughy body doesn't give the ladies of the choir much to ogle at the now infrequent au naturel events. Not that the ladies in the Giles coven provide much of interest to leer at these days. Most are Gilly's age with Eunice, Robert, and Nat in the oldest contingent. Only a few of their children join in, and none of the grandchildren have stuck around Giles. It's not the kind of place where modern youngsters find their fun. They take off as quickly as they can and don't return. Like Eunice's Cassie, most of them have no knowledge of their hidden heritage.

Eunice walks to the shop door and flips the closed sign around again. Then she comes back and plucks me unceremoniously from my perch on the counter and plops me into the cage behind it. She beckons Kevin to follow with a twist of her head and heads for the kitchenette.

She
really
doesn't want me to know what they talk about.

***

Even with Cat's furry radar dishes tuned toward the hall, the conversation is too low for me to hear. I need out of here if I want to spy: fortunately, it's never been difficult to get out of the cage. The hard part is getting back in and getting the clip latched again so that Eunice doesn't know that I slipped my bonds.

Hmmm—maybe it's a little harder with kitten strength and smaller paws—nah, that's got it. The door flap hits the cage bars as it swings open it with a dull, aluminum clink. One graceful leap, and I'm out.

"Don't be stupid! A cat who becomes a man? Have you been dipping into your own potions?" Eunice's querulous voice lashes out as I slink toward the sound.

I hear Kevin's voice a moment later. "Whatever you deny or claim about your abilities, it was hard work keeping the cops out of that distasteful business at your cabins last summer. Do you know how much noble metal I poured into them to accomplish it? You said you'd pave the way for me to high priest."

Eunice stops him with a growl. "I said I would. But you put conditions on it. No death. No disability. It would be easier without having to be subtle."

"I never said subtle. I just said to get it done. But he's my father. I don't want him harmed, I just want the old man to step out of the way. Take a nice retirement."

Eunice says, "Then you'll have to give me time. Or do it yourself if you're so keen."

"If he figures out it's me maneuvering in the background, he'll disinherit me. No, thank you. And the side business you've got going from the shop? You promised me a partnership. And my little prize, Cassie? You've come through for me before, but you're holding out on me now."

"You have no idea the extent to which I've helped you! A worm like you…" I hear what sounds like a meaty palm hit the table, and Eunice barks, "Don't get physical, boy. You know I barely need to lift a finger to take you down. Be good and accept that I'll fulfill my promises in time."

Nothing happens for a moment, and I'm dying to know what's going on. Has she got him by the tongue again? Or by an even more delicate body part? I take the risk and poke my head around the doorway.

Well, that's boring. They're just sitting there glaring at each other. When Kevin looks away, Eunice says, "There. Much better. Do we need to have staring contests like children? No, I don't think so."

She stands and says, "Wait here. I've made something special for you to make up for our unfortunate spat the other night. If only your motives with me were as transparent as my gift to you."

I duck back in the hall, up against the wall, hoping she doesn't glance in my direction. She doesn't. Safe for now. I've got plenty of time before she makes it up the stairs and back down again.

I poke my head into the kitchen to see what Kevin is up to. He's holding a small glass vial full of brown liquid over Eunice's iced tea and watching its contents drain.

Well, this can't be good. What happens if she drinks it? Mind control? Unconsciousness while he ransacks the house? Sexual imposition? Illness? Death? I wouldn't put any of those past him.

And then my heart stops beating as I realize: death. She could die. I'd be free. It starts beating again, wildly.

No. I can't think it. I can't.

I've wished her dead a hundred times, but when it comes down to it, I only want her dead in the abstract. I just want my freedom, my human life back. I wouldn't kill to get it. That would only prove my humanity is truly gone. I hear her footsteps again at the top of the stairs. I need to get back to the shop and my cage so I'm not found out and punished. But I also need to do something to keep Kevin from succeeding at his ghastly business. What I don't need is to keep crouching here paralyzed with indecision between the two alternatives.

Eunice steps into the hall and spots me where I still stand immobile. "Cat! How dare you defy me!"

She starts toward me, dropping the brown-paper-wrapped package she carries. Kevin's gift hits the tile below with a whunk. When she reaches the kitchen door, I dart through, my decision made.

She nearly has my tail, but I leap away onto the chair, then up to the table, and careen into the glass, bowling it over, spilling the tea with its mysterious payload to flow onto the floor in a brown waterfall. The glass spins off the edge of the table and shatters when it hits the floor, shards spraying in all directions. Eunice reaches out and backhands me so that I go spinning off the edge of the table, too. I'm hurt, but I don't shatter.

A splinter of glass slices a back paw when I land, but I run away on three legs, favoring the fourth. I bolt for my cage, pull the door shut behind me, and manipulate the latch back into place. A trail my blood leads from the cage to the hall. Eunice steps into the shop, sees I'm back where I belong, and returns to the kitchen.

A moment later, she re-enters the shop with Kevin in lock step behind her. He's carrying the package she dropped earlier. If his eyes were swords, he'd have sliced me into single-size servings of cat as he passed.

Eunice sees him out and reopens the shop for business.

She leans under the counter, and I gaze up at her with Cat's most sincere look of contrition. All I get for saving her life is a snort.

I clean my sore paw, tasting blood and tea.

I wake in the dark, confused how I could have slept so long. My head feels as furry on the inside as it does on the outside. Then I realize I must have taken in some of Kevin's potion when cleaning my paws. A wet paw is an annoyance no cat can ignore. At least the potion didn't kill me.

My cage door is open now. Eunice must have relented and opened it while I slept. I check the windows, but they're closed tight. I'm sure she's still angry with me for dying so publicly and drawing attention to powers she doesn't want anyone to know she has. I can't go out so I can prowl and play. That's my punishment. Locked up for the night.

 My sore paw feels better after my long sleep, and I'm restless. I go searching for something to do. I find a spool of ribbon on the counter downstairs that Eunice used to pretty up Natalie's Magic Masque.

The spool hits the floor with a thwack and then rolls. I bat at it tentatively, and it goes spinning along, but the ribbon isn't unreeling the way I want it to. I give it the once-over and manage to locate the problem. I grab on to the sides of the spool with sharp little claws and then tug at the end of the tucked-in ribbon with my teeth. Problem solved.

With one bat of a paw, the spool is traveling across the floor with the ribbon spiraling out behind it as it goes. So I leap, and I jump, and I roll, and I tangle. And then I give it another bat in the opposite direction and repeat. If a cat could laugh, I'd be giggling my head off.

Did I say that sometimes it's not so bad being Cat? Because it's true. I don't have to drudge away at a soul-killing job. And the Goddess knows I get plenty of sleep.

On the other hand, the world doesn't look as good through a cat's eyes. The reds are missing: peppers, lady bugs, roses, fire trucks—they all fade to gray. I'd mourn the loss, but then I catch a tiny grain of movement that could be dinner, and I'm off to chase a beetle.

After I've wrung as much fun out of the ribbon as I can, I'm off exploring in the kitchenette, trailing the spool of ribbon behind me because a piece of it is caught in a back claw, and I can't be bothered to spend the time untangling it.

There are a few interesting-smelling bits of food trapped in the drain strainer. I end up spitting them back out, though, because they don't taste anywhere near as good as they smell.

I've probably killed an hour now, and I've poked my head into as many intriguing corners as I can find, but I'm not able to scare up any other fun, so I navigate some nesting circles preparatory to settling in for a nap. When a car backfires in front of the shop, I leap straight up in the air, my bright green ribbon streamer traveling with me. I'm ashamed for being such a scaredy-cat, but I'm young again now, and Cat's instincts will need to refine themselves before I stop jumping at noises.

Alert again, I head for the bedroom. If the backfire woke Eunice up and she's in a better mood, she could dangle the ribbon for me to chase, or she'd pet me for a while before we settle back in to sleep. I sit in the bedside chair and give her the slow-blink stare, but she doesn't sense me and respond. I launch myself onto the bed and scramble over her, going back and forth for a while trying to get her attention, then I finally settle into a hollow in the bedspread to sleep. The ribbon, which had no choice but to follow me in my rambles across her body, wraps her up like a gift.

I hate Eunice for holding me captive all these years; I really do. But I'm so lonely. And Cat never could hold a grudge. He just wants to play.

It's chilly when I wake again. Usually, Eunice puts out more than enough heat for both of us. The sun is blazing through the window now, well above the horizon, and I rub my head against her back one more time, purring loudly, but she doesn't roll over and stroke me like she usually does.

I try again. No response. I get distracted briefly by the ribbon still caught on a back claw and finally take the time to disentangle it with my teeth.

I make one more trip across her body, traveling the path of the ribbon, and look her in the face. Her lips are faintly blue. Her eyes are open wide and staring.

It takes a minute for me to realize that she's gone, that I'd wrapped my own present last night and awakened to a surprise party.

Ding dong, the witch is dead. It finally happened. I'm free of her. Eunice, my lover, my jailor, is gone.

It takes another minute for me to realize that I'm really all alone in the world now, that I'm still Cat, the windows are sealed, and I've got no way to hunt or to open a tin of food for breakfast. Suddenly, my new freedom doesn't feel all that free.

***

I sit in the bedside chair for a long while, forcing Cat to stay focused so that I can think. If only I hadn't talked back to Eunice two nights ago, I'd still be the mature Cat, and the windows would be wide open so that I could roam at night. I could easily take care of myself by hunting. It wouldn't be ideal. I still wouldn't be human like I'd hoped would happen when she died, but at least I could save Cat from an empty belly.

And then it hits me—Cat with an empty belly. How long will it be before Eunice starts to smell like food? I have to get out of here. Now.

I focus Cat the best I can and systematically explore every possible means of escape, but there's no way out. I try to topple one of the big glass lamps into a window to break it, but my attempts to capsize it accomplish nothing except a sore spot on the top of the head. The lamp barely wobbles.

I scour both kitchens for any hint of food—nothing. Not one scrap except the drain bits I rejected yesterday. Cat has always been a great mouser, so there isn't a single furry pest left anywhere within these walls.

The phone rings unexpectedly, and my hackles rise until Cat registers that the sound is harmless. Cassie's voice comes out of the speaker after the message plays. "Granny, is your cell off again? Just call me when you get this. Dan came and got his things, although I couldn't leave them out on the lawn and ended up bringing them back in again. You'd be proud of me, though. I didn't break down and apologize for the pants. So, anyway, call me."

Sorry, Cassie, Eunice doesn't live here any more. And the only inhabitant of the house doesn't have an opposable thumb or the right vocal setup necessary to pick up the receiver and let you know that.

The best I can hope for is that someone will be curious when the shop doesn't open for business Tuesday morning. But that still means I have to make it through tonight, tomorrow, and tomorrow night on my own. All that time with Eunice beginning to smell more and more delicious.

BOOK: The Familiar
2.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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