To my surprise, I felt almost normal on Friday morning. At least, it seemed that way in comparison to the previous two days. Sasha felt my belly and poked with his outer soul and pronounced himself content with my progress. I was able to navigate the stairs with greater comfort, if not quite ease, and so I followed him down for his 6 a.m. omelet and tea, while Terry was still zonked upstairs, and would be for another hour—it was a shame he got to sleep in, as he did mornings better than poor Sasha did.
Six was when the bodyguard changed off, and Bart and Matt yawned their way off to the barracks for more sleep (Bart) and Eamon’s 6:30 hand-to-hand class (Matt), while Devon and Joel showed up to hang out until Terry left and then tail him to school at a discreet distance (Devon) and do basic household chores and mind the fort for the day (Joel).
I was treated to a resumption of my morning half-can of Prairie Picnic along with my taurine-rich kibble, and I noshed while Sasha read email and the boys had an argument about some minor Stricture of the Order over their oatmeal. Morning as usual, and then I heard It.
It was the tiniest scrabble behind the sink, but I recognized it immediately. It was a mouse. At long last, a mouse! The smells I’d detected downstairs when Sasha had first brought me home had been old, and my simple presence had kept them all banished to impossible places, like the attic, for the past several months. We had some–all old houses do–but so long as they remained unseen, left nothing behind, and did no noticeable damage, they were an invisible part of the ecology, and there was nothing for me to do but smell like a cat.
But some little pioneer had once more braved the kitchen! This was more than fair game, and I was very happy. I was a decent mouser. Fred had taught me well, and I burned to impress my humans.
I wished the boys would put a lid on it so I could listen better. I decided to try the international sign language for “Look, there’s a mouse:” I pawed at the door under the sink and meowed until I had eye contact with at least Devon, then repeated the pawing, looking anxious.
Joel said, “Eureka, it’s cat food now. You still have a fresh bowl full.” To Devon: “Bart and Matt got dog food last night, d’ja hear?”
Devon snorted. “Hear? It’s on the official incident report.” He shot Sasha an apprehensive look and muttered, “Abbot nearly bust a gut laughing about it. Said he was glad we had an archimago who appreciated our abilities and expected the best.” Sasha did not make eye contact or show that he’d heard this, but a small spike of amusement went through his outer soul.
Damn it! Of course! My food lived under the sink! In fact, that must be what the rapacious little bastard was after. The nerve! I repressed the urge to roll my eyes at the boys and kept meowing like a good kitty.
Still without looking up, Sasha said, “Open the door for her. She’s got a mouse, I bet.”
Devon was closest and reached over and disengaged the latch, which I was embarrassed to recall was installed after I had failed to resist exploring some fascinating trash during my first couple of weeks. Hoist by my own petard now. I tugged open the door with a paw and sort of waddled inside, still hampered a little by the incision. And aha! Mouse sign galore–a tiny eddy of nibbled fragments of bag, several pellets of poo, and the rank smell everywhere. (Nothing reeks like mice, not even rats, which are cleaner and smarter, if an advanced topic for the average housecat, although the massive Fred had bragged about being able to take them out when he had to.)
I meowed some more and patted the bag, then realized that would only confuse them into getting back onto the cat-wantum-food trail. Maybe better to wait for Pharaoh; I was willing to bet that I’d get results. I sighed and went back to finishing my breakfast.
There it was again! I lunged into the opening under the sink without thinking, banging myself on the doorway and getting a sharp scary pang inside for my trouble. I moaned in a mixture of pain and frustration, and Sasha said in a satisfied tone, “Yup, mouse. C’mere, kitcat.” He scooped me out by my chest, “mm-hmm”-ing at my complaint in sympathy.
“Eureka, you’re not up to this yet. Let’s get the food out of there–well, looky here, gentlemen; in my line of work we call this material evidence–and up on the counter. I’ll bring home one of the big specimen canisters Farley ordered; that ought to do the trick.”
“Mice are perfectly able of getting onto the counter. Shame on you,” I mumbled. He picked up on my unhappiness.
“Best we’re doing for now. No, better yet–” He bundled the bag tight and put it on top of the refrigerator. While he was there he checked the cereal boxes and found nothing.
“Matter of time,” I groused to myself. They latched the cabinet door at Sasha’s insistence that I wasn’t 100% yet and he didn’t want temptation looking me in the eye. I wasn’t sure whether he meant the mouse or the trash; one was probably a good idea and true enough, the other was unfair, and both were infantilizing. I cleaned up the last bits of Prairie Picnic, taking time off to growl warnings toward the sink that used vocabulary that would have grown hair on the Crucio’s bald head had he been there to hear me.
Later, after everybody else had left, Joel cleaned out the cabinet under the sink, tsking at the mouse poo. I supervised, and was ashamed of myself for either sleeping on the job or at best, picking the world’s worst time to go into heat and get sidelined by the surgery. After he was done, we both took a nap in the guard room, only to be awakened by the doorbell. It was the Tarragons, Rita looking eager, Lynn looking sheepish.
“Sasha said that it was all right for Rita to play in your yard. I just wanted to check before I left for the library.”
Great, I could feel Joel thinking. Aloud, he said, “Uh, sure, I guess so. I’ll keep half an eye on her.”
“Terrific!” Lynn’s face lit up. “Rita, you behave yourself, okay?”
“Of course, Mommy.” Rita made little shooing gestures. “Hi, Eureka!” She bent down and petted my head and back with gentle strokes that betrayed that she wasn’t used to animals, or at least to getting to touch them. It was as if she was afraid I would break, which beat the alternative, I suppose, but it was a little annoying. I realized again how spoiled I’d gotten, living among Th’nashi with responsive outer souls which told them almost as feedback how hard and long to pet. Presumably, Rita’s hadn’t grown in yet.
We all watched Lynn hurry down the street at a brisk trundle which was almost a waddle. She probably would have been more comfortable with less weight, I guessed. Still, it was a pity. She looked soft. Then Rita gave Joel a disarming grin that fooled him not a bit.
“You don’t have to watch me. In fact, I’d feel weird if you did. I promise I won’t go anywhere but home to check on mom with the computer.” She sighed in resignation at her own goodness.
“Not to worry. I have my own stuff to do,” he said. “I know what you mean, and I’m not going to do the creepy old man thing. But don’t even think of heading out for the Territories, or I’ll have to come after you. Dr. Van der Linden is serious as a heart attack about that.”
She saluted. “Mind if I just go home and get my drawing stuff?” Joel waved her on. I regretted it when he shut the door, leaving all the brisk shiny beauty of the fall Outdoors on the other side. He went up to grab the laundry; meanwhile, I decided to save myself a trip up the stairs and went back in to check on my mouse.
And stopped dead in my tracks for a timeless split second: The vermin was sitting in the middle of the floor, saucy as you please. I leapt; it leapt; and then it was gone, scrabbling under the cabinets by the door this time, while I cried foul at the top of my lungs and pawed at the crack so hard I stubbed a toe.
“Oh no,” groaned Joel, as he passed with an armful of sheets.
“Oh yes,” I mewed. “And I can hear another one back under the sink. It has an accomplice.”
Joel and I spent the rest of the day alternating between tearing the kitchen apart and drawing a bead on Rita outside with our outer souls. Terry came home right before teatime and suggested siccing Pharaoh on it. Even I knew that this wasn’t in the District Sorcerer’s job description, even without seeing Joel’s look of incredulity, which he wiped off after only a nanosecond–Terry missed it, being too pleased with his own brilliant idea.
“So how long have we had a kiddo?” he asked.
“Since right about lunchtime,” Joel sighed. “Did Sasha really offer us up as a babysitting service, sir?”
Terry winced. “Um, we decided that we want to get to know them better. With the idea of maybe making them vai’ada eventually.” This was a half-truth, “vai’ada” being the opposite of “tseradi”–i.e., humani who were hip to the vampire thing and full members of Contract society, whereas in reality the Tarragons weren’t humani at all, and sooner or later Rita at least would have to reckon with that. But it was good enough for government work for the time being, and Joel nodded.
“But, sir.” He stopped, and checked through his not-very-large personal stock of diplomacy. “But.” He stopped again.
“But there are limits to how far we can take advantage of the Order?” prompted Terry with a half-smile.
Joel looked grateful. “Sir, to be perfectly honest, I don’t like kids. Even though she’s been as good as gold. Today,” he added. Joel had been on the tracking detail a couple of times. He sighed. “Thing is, maybe I’m just bringing my own stuff into it, but the whole thing reminds me of my sister. If she can get rid of my nephew, she does. And he’s turning into a little asswipe, excuse my French. Already had her call me twice to get me to sweet-talk the Lions into letting him coast on some minor stuff, and I told her I’m not doing it any more. He’s becoming an embarrassment.”
Terry sighed, looking grim. “You’re talking to a reformed asswipe. Who wasn’t appropriately supervised. Yeah, I hear ya. And what’s more, I agree. And to be fair, so does Sasha. He’s just a pragmatist who’s been Hippocratic Oathing the situation: First, do no harm. We hadn’t gotten that far, but it’s going to be up to me to sit Lynn down for a talk about the facts of life.”
“Mm,” said Joel. There was a little silence while Terry and I watched him caulk up the mousehole we had finally spotted up under the dish drainer. Then, “Your Grace, may I make a suggestion?”
“Maybe Lion Fabrizio can talk to the mom. He’s . . . got . . . a way with people. He can usually get them to do what he wants them to do.”
Terry gave a sincere and hearty laugh. “That’s for damn sure!” He grew quiet, with his I’ve-got-an-idea-smile. “You know, Joel, that’s a great idea. They don’t have a history, and I think Lynn’s even Episcopalian, so the priest thing might work some extra hoodoo. But how do we bring them together?”
“Simple. You have ‘em both over for dinner. You cook, we’ll wait table.”
“No,” Terry disagreed. “I want her to stop being intimidated by the staff issue. Whoever’s on, and I think it should be you and Dev, especially since it’s your idea, will just eat with us like we usually do.” He grinned at the cub in delighted approval. “In fact, I’m pretty sure Dante’s free tonight. Strike while the iron’s hot, I say.” He pulled out his wallet. “Go run out and pick up some ribs and the makings for my special sauce. You can’t have a stick up your ass while you’re eating barbecue; it’ll loosen her up.”
Him too, I hoped. I trotted off to my spot behind the TV for a nap. I didn’t want to miss Dante Fabrizio and barbecue sauce.