Standing in the rain
Doing it again
Some kind of happiness is measured out in miles
What makes you think you're something special when you smile?
The Beatles, Hey Bulldog
There was a young man on the doorstep, almost a boy, certainly not older than twenty, and the colour of his face implied that he might not have had a bath for at least a quarter of that time, but, strangely, he was very neatly shaved. He had greasy black hair that hung down to his shoulders in wild strands. His jeans were torn at both knees, the sleeveless jacket he wore was an indefinable shade of grey, the shirt underneath at the point of falling apart. The smell about him was not as much bad as… odd. Like a cat that even shied the cleaning of its own tongue. And, of course, there was the cat, rubbing against his heavy boots.
It was a medium-sized grey tiger, a rather common animal. Yet its eyes were special. They radiated a kind of… sapient boredom… which should definitely not be found in a cat's eyes.
"I'm a friend of Willard Stiles's", the young man said. "And so, I believe, are you."
What was it he wanted? Despite his appearance, he certainly was no beggar. There was a definite sense of pride in his attitude. And the cat wouldn't be following him if he treated it badly. So he was probably kind to animals.
"This is Hector", he said. "You own cats yourself, do you? There's that pretty red one, Cassandra, I believe, who recently had kittens, isn't it so? You gave one of them to Willard, didn't you? It was Scully, if I remember it correctly. Hector's the father, you see." He bent down to scratch the grey tiger's ears. "Yes, and you're Cathryn, I'm pretty sure of it."
Finally she found her voice again. "How do you know all this?"
"Because I'm a friend of Willard's." He grinned.
"Willard has no friends", she said automatically, before she could stop herself.
"Yeah, that's what he thinks. Always been a loner, Willard. Until he found the pack. Yet I doubt that a rat makes a good friend. I'm more the cat type myself."
"Yes, I can see that", Cathryn said, marvelling at Hector's intelligent eyes. This stranger might be weird, but he liked cats. To her, someone who liked cats couldn't possibly be a scoundrel.
But someone who liked rats… No, she would not think of it. Not again.
"How do you know about me and my cats?" she asked instead. And about Willard, she mentally added. Does it show on my face? The Girl Who Almost Went Out With The Rat-tamer? The Girl Who Almost Went Out With A Murderer? Yes, I did like him. But how could I have known… ?
"Oh, I know about every cat in the neighbourhood." He beamed at her. "Cats are my passion. That's where I got my name, too. People call me Tomcat."
"Tomcat", Cathryn repeated. "Do you live around here?"
"Recently, I do. Hector likes to be around Cassandra for some reason." Again he grinned. "But that doesn't mean anything. I live everywhere, you see, and nowhere. I'm a stray."
A stray, Cathryn thought. How strange. You could call a runaway cat a stray.
A stray tomcat…
"Even though my appearance speaks out against me", he smiled awkwardly, "I must ask you to trust me. I need your help."
"What exactly do you want?" she asked, suspicious. This was getting even more peculiar than it had looked in the beginning.
"It's about Willard", he answered promptly. "With a little bit of help from me and my friends, he'll be free in no time."
"And you want to hide him somewhere", she said, guessing where this was leading.
He raised his eyebrows. "You frightened?"
"Of the police?" she shot back. "No, because I-"
"No, of Willard."
Cathryn hesitated. She recalled the moment when the revelation had hit her, when she had finally understood what he had done. Had she been afraid then? Shocked, of course, but afraid? She recalled the fear in his eyes as he had called her, as he had begged her for help… Had she been afraid then? Afraid of what? Of him? Of the rats? Of the police, and of what they would think of her?
"You believe he's mad, don't you?" Tomcat asked, obviously taking her silence for a yes. "I'll tell you something: That's just what the people say. But they have no damn idea!" He scowled, and for a moment a look of utter ferocity crossed his face. But as Cathryn looked again, it had disappeared, and she assumed that she had merely been imagining it. "Sane as any man, Willard Stiles. To be exact, a whole lot saner. I mean, look at Frank Martin, the bloody bastard. Would you call him a better man than Willard, only because he has – used to have an entire firm in his hand and an expensive car and a damn big house and a great big lot of money? Obsessed madman, he was. Nothing more. How I wish Willard had killed a lot more of that blood-sucking sort."
Oh no, Cathryn thought, not some kind of left-wing anarchist lecturing me on social injustice! He's right about Martin being a bastard, but I hate it when they get ideological about it!
"Yeah, right, you can't really compare it", Tomcat admitted when he saw the look on Cathryn's face. "That he's got money has nothing to do with it." Cathryn suppressed a sigh of relief. "But he was still a maniac. And Willard isn't! He's just fine! They only locked him up because they're afraid of his talents. People are always afraid of what they can't explain. Believe me, I know it well enough." Here he stopped himself, but Cathryn had the clear impression that there was something more he wanted to say. "Can I count on you?" he inquired.
Cathryn sighed heavily. What should she say? "Now look, Tomcat-"
"I know", he cut her off. "It's a significant and hard decision, and it's maybe a bit too much to decide in such a short time. Look, I fully understand if it's a problem for you. But I won't force you. I wouldn't want to endanger you. After all", here he gave her a little wink, "you're a lover of cats."
Surprised at his sudden understanding, Cathryn nodded. "Can I think about it?"
"Sure", Tomcat answered. "We've got some business in the area anyway, Hector and I. Haven't we, Hector?"
Looking up at its master, the cat mewed softly.
Tomcat nodded knowingly, just as if the grey tiger had just informed him of something. "I see. If you'd excuse him, Cathryn… He'd like to see Cassandra for a minute. D'you mind?" Without waiting for an answer, he called: "Cassandra! Visitor!"
Cathryn opened her mouth to tell him to stop being silly, but had to shut it again as her red cat brushed past her leg purring and sniffed Hector before starting to lick his ears affectionately.
While Cathryn stared, thunderstruck, Tomcat kneeled down and ran a hand over Cassandra's head. "Well, it's been some time", he said softly, as if speaking to the cat. "How are your children?"
Cassandra meowed at him.
"Glad to hear that. And how about your old friend, Phoenix, wasn't it?"
Cassandra twitched her tail and made a little throaty noise.
"Really? Shame. I'll tell her to pay you a visit when I next see her."
The red cat gave a little purr and twitched her tail again, at which Hector sat up straight and started whipping the ground with his.
"Scully?" Tomcat's features screwed up in dismay. "Don't ask."
Hector made a low, rasping sound, close to a moan, at which Cassandra hissed and clawed at the air. Cathryn had never seen her so furious before. Why, why suddenly? Of course Cathryn knew what had happened to the young cat, after all she had gone to take her back after Willard had been brought away, but how could Cassandra possibly… how could Hector… how could Tomcat… ?
"We believe it was the same rat who killed her who also brought our friend Willard down", Tomcat said slowly. "But we have no proof yet. It's still only rumours."
Hector mewed questioningly, then turned to rubbing his head against Cassandra's fur soothingly.
"Yes, it startles me as well", Tomcat admitted. "But that's what they say. And I tend to believe them. And if you wait just a few more hours, we will know." Here the corners of his mouth moved slowly apart into a grin. "We will know", he repeated.
"Tomcat, what's this all about?" Cathryn demanded. Her cat's reactions to him and Hector scared her. Something was wrong about this Tomcat, something was very wrong indeed!
Tomcat looked up, brown eyes glittering in his dirt-tanned face. "I'm not sure yet", he replied. "Willard would know. I intend to ask him."
"You have something in common, you and Willard", Cathryn stated. After what had happened with the rats, she was ready to believe anything he was going to tell her, especially after what strange scene she had witnessed right now.
"Indeed", Tomcat confirmed. "We both have a very unique talent, only the species responding to us is different. For Willard it's the rats, whereas for me, it's cats. Isn't that so, Hector?"
The grey cat purred.
"You command the cats?" Cathryn asked, not quite sure if this was a reason to like or dislike Tomcat.
"No. You can't command them. I simply talk to them. Sometimes they do my bidding, sometimes they refuse. They're very hard to control. It helps if you ask them politely." He laughed, and Cathryn found herself laughing along. Underneath all that grime, his face was friendly and cheerful.
"Cassandra likes you a lot", Tomcat said, straightening up. "You care well for her."
"She is very important to me."
"I know. She always cheers you up when you are sad. She's a good cat." He scooped Cassandra up and held her in his arms. "A very good cat. And a pretty one."
The red cat pawed at his face and produced a few little mewing sounds.
"She says you've been sad again lately", Tomcat translated. "She can feel it."
"I have", Cathryn admitted carefully.
Tomcat smiled. "It's Willard, isn't it?"
"Why do you think so?" she asked sharply.
Too sharply, for immediately he gave her that knowing look she found so unpleasant. "I can guess. Listen, I can bring him here if you want. This very night. He'll then go into hiding together with me. And then…" Tomcat threw back his head proudly. Eyes half closed, a smile of anticipation appeared on his features. "We'll find our place in the world, Willard and I. We'll show them."
Our place in the world? Poor Willard, Cathryn thought, he had seemingly never had a proper place in the world. Was this Tomcat really a friend of his? Could he really help him?
Aloud, she said: "You want to go into hiding with him? Where?"
Again a bright smile. "Not at your place, don't worry. I know somewhere a lot safer."
"So why would you need my help then?"
"It's just that I have to put him away somewhere to wait while I check the hideout and spread the news around with the cat community", Tomcat explained. "If you'd take him in for two or three hours or so… That would about do the trick. They won't start looking for him until the morning anyway."
Cathryn nodded. "I could do that. But nobody should find out."
"Trust me, they won't. I know my tricks", Tomcat assured her.
My God, this is crazy, Cathryn thought. What am I doing there? Does Willard really deserve my help, after all he's done?
Yes, she decided, he did. But two or three hours, nothing more. "Anything else?"
"Well…" Despite his proud manner, Tomcat looked a little bit embarrassed now. "Yeah, Hector pointed it out to me. It's just… I don't like it, you see, but he certainly has a point… I'll need a bath, or else they won't let me in."
Cathryn looked him up and down, having a hard time indeed to hold back a giggle. "You'll need fresh clothes, too."
"I already know where to get them." The strange young man grinned. "D'you mind?"
"It's okay with me", Cathryn said. "But don't even think of trying anything funny."
"Funny? Like what?"
Cathryn shrugged. "Whatever. Normally, I don't invite your kind in."
Tomcat's grin broadened. "Yeah, but normally my kind doesn't know Willard, eh?"
"One more stupid remark", Cathryn threatened, "and I'll give you hell, cat-lover or not. There was nothing between me and Willard, nothing, do you hear?"
"Well", Tomcat snickered, handing Cassandra back to her, "we never know what might have been…"
"I warned you, Tomcat."
"Oh, alright." He grimaced. "So Hector and I will be off for a bit, and then we'll return to hear what you say. Right?"
"Where exactly are you going, Tomcat?"
He shrugged. "We'll just nip over to Willard's house. To recover some useful things. I hope we'll be back in half an hour, maybe a bit later." He already turned to go, Hector at his heels. "See you later, then."
"Bye", Cathryn answered, holding Cassandra to her. "See you."
She was far too trusting. Just because this Tomcat had a strange way of conversing with cats…
And just for a man who had been her colleague for no more than a few days, for a man who had turned out to be a murderer…
No, she told herself, it was not fair to call him so. Maybe he had killed Frank Martin with the assistance of his rats. But the way Martin had treated him, how horrible he had been… It was just an act of despair, she thought. After all, Martin had as good as killed him with firing him. He had ruined his existence, taken everything he had.
And Willard had been punished when in the end the rats had turned on him.
For these two or three hours Tomcat had spoken of, she decided, she would do what she could to help Willard. But after that… she would leave the whole business to Tomcat. It would be none of her concern anymore.
Hugging her cat tightly, she closed the door and stepped inside again.
Had she known what was going to happen during the next week, she would probably have refused to help.
Or maybe not?