The Cat of Amontillado

Book Cover: The Cat of Amontillado
Part of the The Psychic Cat Mysteries series:

It takes a special kind of man to survive in a world torn apart by vampires, zombies, sidhe, and gods.

A man like Mr. Poe.

Brilliant. Handsome. Fluffy. A psychic cat who can shapeshift into a human.

A vampire's shriveled husk is found long-dead in a wine cellar underneath Haven, a retirement resort where immortals pass infinite time. The only rule in Haven is zero violence, and there's zero tolerance.

Mr. Poe must team up with the local sheriff, Gwyneth Gresham, in order to solve the murder, bring justice to the deader-than-usual victim, and survive Miss Draconia's Knitting Circle. For a budding detective like Mr. Poe, one little murder mystery won't even give him paws.

Published:
Publisher: Red Iris Books
Excerpt:

Mr. Poe and His Mummies

I’m not too proud to admit I was born underneath a patio. There’s a certain poetic elegance to it, if you think about it: A feline as noble as me, with such lovely sleek lines, rising from the earth like gold nuggets within a pan of soggy mud. I am a handsome boy, to be sure, so the contrast is the stuff of legends.

It’s fortuitous that I was born underneath that particular patio. That was where my biological mother birthed a largely unremarkable litter of kittens, and it’s also where I was found by my real mummies.

The creature I was born to was an ordinary stray cat. She had nothing to offer but life.

My real mummies were the ones who heard my urgent mewls and thought to look underneath the patio to find the lot of us.

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“I see them,” said Suzy. I didn’t know my first mummy’s name at the time. I also didn’t know English at the time, nor could I shapeshift into a human. That came later. “They’re all the way in the back. It’s so dirty.”

“Climb in and get them,” said Izzy, my other mummy.

“Why don’t you climb in and get them?” Suzy asked.

“You’re smaller than me.” Izzy clutched her breasts (humans only have two) and shook them to indicate girth was an issue. (Humans are not nearly as compressible as cats.)

Suzy hissed and spat but eventually clawed her way to us. I was taken in gentle long-fingered hands, passed to another pair of gentler hands, and experienced sunlight for the first time.

“Why hello,” said Izzy. I could see her face clearly in that moment, and what a face it was! Eyes large enough for a cat despite the round pupils. She had eyelashes. Her nose stuck out above her lips. She had no fangs, and I was immediately determined I’d bite anyone who needed to be bitten for my fangless beauty.

I attempted to reply, but cat mouths aren’t good for words.

My response came out as a squeak.

Izzy’s lovely face melted into joy. “Oh, you perfect thing,” she cooed, rubbing the tip of her nose against mine.

I licked her skin and she tasted like mummy.

It was love, instantaneous and overwhelming. I just knew it.

“That is a very big purr for a very little kitten,” she said, briefly allowing me to rest against her heart.

“Got two more,” Suzy said.

Izzy’s hand lowered me into a cardboard box. (I would later find it in myself to forgive her for the indignity.) Shortly thereafter, my siblings joined me, and my mother also came after a certain amount of scuffing, swearing, and shouting from Suzy.

It wasn’t long before we were inside somewhere new—a structure I’d quickly come to recognize as my territory. It’s the house that my mummies live in.

“They are so cute,” Suzy said, leaning close to the box so that I could see her. She also had very appealing features. Her eyes are darker than those of my feline family members, but there was kittenish mischief in the twist of lips. I know someone with the wit of a feline when I see one. Suzy would have been well-off as a cat.

That said, my mummies are the two most beautiful noncats in the world, and believe me when I tell you I’m an expert in these things.

Evidently the feeling was mutual. They were kind to all of us while we lived in that cardboard box, but they wasted no opportunity to inform me that I was the most handsome. They petted me and played with me and snuggled me the most. They even let me sleep between them in bed.

“I love his little toes,” Izzy would say while tickling my paws. I stretched out my claws and swatted at her. I was very careful. noncat skin was delicate and I didn’t want to hurt my mummies.

“You’re so sappy,” Suzy hissed back, as if she hated me. She stuffed me down her shirt and carried me everywhere right next to her heart. When nobody was looking, she often kissed me right on the face.

My territory expanded rapidly. The box was in a closet filled with shoes, but once we could jump out of the box, we were given free roam of the den’s sun-drenched warmth. When the sun beams disappeared, my mummies would turn on a fireplace and we would bask on the heated tiles all night.

So many things to do in that den! So many plants to chew, so many textures to sharpen my claws upon, so many tables to leap atop.

“You’re such a pain in the butt,” Izzy would say when she caught me up to such mischief. I liked when she caught me. It meant she would nestle me against her breast again. I clambered onto her shoulder to groom her hair and she couldn’t stay cross. “Well, menace or not, you are so handsome and so sweet.”

It was not difficult to get my mummies wrapped around my handsome little paw.

Eventually, my siblings left, and so did my birth mother. I no longer required the benefit of her teat. She was given to someone else who lived on the street, and I’m glad I was rid of her, to be truthful. Her kits looked to be the result of trysts with three different fathers—none of whom were ever around, I might add—and I’ve never needed that kind of negative influence in my life.

My mummies never gave me away.

“We can keep one,” Izzy wheedled. “He’s the littlest of them. He takes up no room at all. And he’s been doing so nice sleeping under the covers with us, so...”

“I don’t know why you’re trying to convince me,” Suzy said. “You know I’ve been wanting another cat since Cat died. It’ll be nice to have Cat Junior around.”

I yowled my dissent. I still did not understand English, but I understood tones, and Cat Junior was not my name.

My blessed Izzy agreed. “You don’t get to name this one. You’re terrible at naming.” She nestled me in the crook of her arm and tickled my belly the way she tickled my toes. I barely clawed her at all. “He’s Poe. Like the writer. Mr. Poe.”

And so I am.

A Happening of Ill-Fortune

I became capable of shapeshifting quite by accident.

You see, in addition to being very beautiful, my mummies were very important.

Suzy was an angel, which I say without metaphor. She worked at the Ethereal Levant, where she was trying to organize the other angels into “being slightly less like giant flying weasels,” she once told Izzy.

Izzy, meanwhile, was truly a mummy—which is to say, not one of the living. She was an extraordinarily well-maintained zombie. She died quite a while ago, sold her soul to a demon, and through various adventures ended up an eternal corpse. She’s also a talented necrocognitive—capable of speaking to the dead-dead, meaning those who have died and are no longer walking around and adopting kittens. Necrocognition was a skill in high demand. She often left the Haven to help save the world.

When one is as important as my mummies, one’s home collects artifacts and treasures. As such, there was always one room I was forbidden to enter. A place where they kept their deadliest secrets. Their most important treasures. The most appealing smells.

I thought of it as the Special Room.

“Oh no, Mr. Poe, that’s much too dangerous for you.” Izzy scooped me away from the door for the umpteenth time, depositing me onto her shoulder where I belonged.

I burrowed under her hair and chewed on her necklace. She giggled.

“I thought I was the only kitty who gets to chew on your neck,” said her male companion, Cèsar. I’m afraid to say that Cèsar was one show of terrible taste on behalf of my mummies. Whenever he spent the night at our house, in my territory, I got kicked out of bed. And he left rival tomcat smells all over everything.

“I’m sorry, Cèsar,” Izzy said. “You came first, but Mr. Poe is my true love.”

Again, I will reiterate that I only understood tone, not language. (My memory became impeccable so I translated their conversations later.) I knew the meaning of Izzy’s words and washed her ear with vigorous approval.

I understood her words to be truth rather than indulgence. My mummies would never toy with me like that. Further, Cèsar was a cait sidhe, immortal but alive. A faerie of the Winter Court. He could transform into a very large cat. This put us into direct conflict.

Izzy said she loved me more. He didn’t seem to take her warning seriously.

Cèsar tried to kiss her and I clawed his face.

“Hey!” He reared back with a laugh, which was surely a way for him to conceal his abject terror. My mummies’ house was my territory, thank you very much, and I ruled it with iron claws.

With one minor exception.

Cèsar was allowed into the Special Room, where I was not.

It was very frustrating. When anyone entered that Special Room, I could smell interesting things and glimpse delicate glass baubles that looked fun to swat.

“Be careful with this new artifact,” Cèsar warned Izzy that day, handing her a box. (Suzy was at the Ethereal Levant and not in attendance for this exchange.) “We don’t really know how the Ring of Bau works. You don’t want to end up a cat too.”

“At least I’d be in good company.” Izzy transferred me to the floor before kissing Cèsar again. I wrapped myself around his ankle and kicked his shoe with my rear claws.

“All right, that’s enough, buddy.” Cèsar petted me down my spine before stepping away—the insult of it! He was so fast that I could not flip over to rip his skin off in time.

I would not think more of the Ring of Bau until later, when Izzy was preparing to leave the house for a lengthy trip. Lying atop my mummy’s suitcase didn’t seem to prevent her from putting more of her belongings inside

“I wish I could pack you,” she crooned to me, holding me just the way I liked it—like her baby, cushioned against her two perfectly adequate human breasts. “You wouldn’t like our travels, though. The Nether Worlds aren’t kitty-friendly. But don’t worry, Mr. Poe. Our neighbor Gwyn is going to visit you every day to make sure your litter is clean and your food is full.”

This was fortuitous, as it would turn out. Not just because I would have yowled bloody murder if faced with the bare bottom of my food bowl, but because before Izzy left, I managed to slip inside of the Special Room.

She didn’t notice I darted between her feet as she exited. The door clicked shut behind me. I was locked inside.

Had I been more cognizant at the time, it would have occurred to me that being locked in a room where I was forbidden was not a good idea. I still had the intelligence of a kitten, though.

Oh, how delighted I was by the baubles in that Special Room! They glimmered at me from every shelf. Glass balls and brass mechanical devices shimmered in light from a window overlooking the garden. The play of sunlight through the trees, reflected off of the artifacts, looked like something fun to chase. Perhaps something fun to eat!

I leaped nimbly atop one chair after another, scaled the drapes, and reached the highest shelves. I wound between the artifacts and rubbed my flank along the phials to replace Cesar’s tomcat stink.

For minutes on end, I played and leaped and pawed, nudging things off the edge of the shelf. It was a delight to see how they moved.

Then I saw it.

The most delightful thing.

Later, I would realize that it was the Ring of Bau: this copper twist with tiny filaments jutting in every which direction, like the feathers on a bird or the fur on a mouse. I found that the Ring of Bau was pleasant to chew upon, and I lay beside it, gnawing.

I didn’t intend to swallow the Ring of Bau. Just chew it until my gums felt better. (I had been losing baby teeth at the time, and chewing was one of my favorite pastimes.) Unfortunately, the Ring of Bau seemed to shrink after some time, or perhaps it twisted in on itself, and I tried to nibble on it with my back teeth, and...

Well, I swallowed.

You wouldn’t think some little prickly piece of metal would go down so smoothly.

It felt strange in my belly. Heat zinged from the tips of my ears to the tips of my tail. I pawed at my tail, thinking wrongly that I’d been bitten, only to find that there was nothing.

I immediately realized that the Ring of Bau was transforming my body in some way. And then realized that I was thinking clearly, analyzing my behaviors, and seeing things from a somewhat more human perspective. That would have been strange enough on its own, but my cognition was not the only change.

I thrashed myself straight off of the shelf, gagging terribly, and landed on a desk with a Ouija board at its center.

It was there that I changed for the first time.

My body grew big. My fur fell away. My face gained strange geometry.

I stood up and said, “Oh my!”

Surprised by the sound, my paws clapped over my mouth—but they were not paws. They were hands, with fingers, just like the ones that my mummies used to tickle me. My bare skin was as black as my fur and the only hair I could find was on my head, where it grew thick and straight.

I had lost my gorgeous, handsome black coat.

I was a human.

“Well, look at this,” I said clumsily. The Special Room was much smaller than I remembered. Perhaps thirty square meters. The desk by the window was not a leap—I could see over its top.

Naturally, being a brilliant feline, I was also a brilliant human. It immediately struck me that I could open the door to let myself out of the Special Room so that I would not get caught having been where I was not allowed. (Also, I was missing my food bowl.)

I lost a portion of my grace in the transition from four to two legs, so I stumbled frequently on my way to the door.

My fingers, likewise, were initially clumsy. I batted at the door and it did nothing. Recalling the way I had seen Izzy wrapping her fingers around the knob, I mimicked the memory and twisted.

The door opened faster than I’d expected and my reflexes were somewhat slower. I tumbled out of the room.

And rolled up against a pair of work boots.

I looked up at a human woman with gray hair in a thick braid over her shoulder and human clothing much plainer than what my mummies liked to wear. Either she was scentless or my nose was dulled to human-strength. Her skin was an unremarkable pink-white. Quite humble by all visible metrics.

It must have been Gwyn, the neighbor who was meant to look after me while I was alone.

She squatted at my side with her elbows on her knees and said, “Huh. Okay. So I guess you’re Mr. Poe. They didn’t tell me you’re a shapeshifter.”

Kittensitting

That’s all there is to that part of the story. I swallowed the Ring of Bau and promptly became a human shifter. I adored my mummies, but as they say, opposites attract—I had no desire to be like them. It gave me no delight to figure out how to operate my limbs properly when Gwyn marched me into my mummies’ bedroom.

The bed that had been a vast pillowy field would no longer have fit a hundred of me. I calculated that I could still sleep between Suzy and Izzy, but the idea of so many long limbs, hairless skin, and bony knees perturbed me. They would be too repulsed. If I didn’t find a way to eject the Ring of Bau, I’d never get to snuggle them again.

Cats are naturally much more practical than noncats. I accepted this fact and filed it away for later analysis, once Gwyn stopped pulling clothing out of the closet and holding it up to my body.

“What are you doing?” I asked. Talking like people wasn’t hard at all. I was already very good at it.

“I’m figuring out how I’m going to dress you in clothes owned by two adult women,” Gwyn said. “Humans don’t walk around naked. You’ll make everyone clutch their pearls.”

I did not want to be a human. I did not want clothes. I wanted to sleep in bed with my mummies.

Dropping to all fours, I began hacking in an attempt to vomit.

Gwyn watched me, arms folded. “What are you doing?”

I hacked and gagged. Nothing came up. So I stood up, walked away, and licked my hand coolly to preserve dignity. “I ate something that made me change. I want to change back.”

“We can try peroxide at my house,” she said. “Used to work on my cows when they ate something funny. But first, clothes. Suzy’s stuff oughta fit. Got any problems with dresses? Nothing else is gonna stay up on this skinny little waist.”

“I’m going to turn back into a cat right now,” I said, offended. “I’m not going to stay like this!”

She folded her bony old lady arms. “All right. Change back.”

Vomiting seemed a nonstarter, so I squeezed my eyes shut and focused hard. It shouldn’t have been difficult. My body should have been a cat’s, and I’m a sensible kitty, and there was just no need to get into more complex nonsense.

Nothing happened.

Gwyn manhandled me, stuffing my limbs through one of Suzy’s ephemeral white gowns. “Human boys need clothes. You’re a kitten and a child, and I don’t like the thought of you in this big house alone. You’re staying with me until Izzy and Suze come back.”

I tried to protest this by raising my hackles and puffing my tail, but to no avail. I no longer had a tail to puff.

The dress was so long that it puddled around my feet. Gwyn gathered it at the waist with a belt so that I could walk without tripping.

Of course, I had no intention of walking. I attempted to crawl under the bed.

She grabbed my ankle before I could disappear.

It seemed that I was sized as a human child, in much the way that I was still a kitten, and Neighbor Gwyn was significantly larger than me. “Don’t bother trying to bite me,” she said, dragging me out the front door and locking it behind her. “I’m a zombie. Can’t be hurt. It’ll heal right fast.” She tapped her necklace, which was a glass bauble containing a delicate bird skull.

“You’re like Izzy?” I asked.

“That’s how we got to be friends,” Gwyn said. “It sure wasn’t Miss Draconia’s Knitting Circle.” She shot an ugly look at a house further up the street. All the homes in Haven were smaller than they’d looked as a kitten. They were nonetheless elaborate human constructions. They had multiple levels and multiple roofs, which presented appealing climbing, sitting, and staring opportunities. Their lawns all had such lush grass perfect for sheltering the fattest mice. Everything in Haven was perfect.

“Who is Miss Draconia?” I asked.

Gwyn glanced at me, eyes pinching at the corners. That was how cats smiled but I couldn’t read her facial expression. Her ears didn’t even swivel. “Miss Draconia is that old vampire hag who keeps reporting me to the homeowner’s association for my chickens escaping—which they’re not, mind you! I keep my flock in hand! She’s just bitter I reported her for doing blood spells. She’s all Mary Sunshine on the outside and Henhouse McCarthyist on the inside!”

She was distracted by glaring at the vampire’s house (which was violet-walled and spindly). I took the opportunity to dart across the street, aiming for the safety of the shadows underneath my mummies’ bushes.

The outdoors were less overwhelming as a human than in my natural form. I took in virtually no information through the sinuses. I felt deafened by my little conch ears. Only my eyes seemed slightly improved, as there were new colors in my surroundings.

But my feet were so slow.

I barely made it two steps before Gwyn lassoed me again, holding me under one arm so I couldn’t reach the ground no matter how I flailed. “You think you’re the first little shifter I’ve had to keep in hand?” she asked. “I’ve raised enough litters that I could run a football league with ‘em! Nothing you do’s gonna bother me. You’re sticking close so I can keep an eye on you until Suze gets home.”

I want to be home,” I hissed, thrashing.

She tossed me into her house.

Gwyn’s home had much more wood in its construction than mine. It was small and cozy with chicken-patterned curtains. A teapot whistled on the stove. She cursed under her breath and turned it off. “Can’t believe I forgot that again… Oughta find a necromancer to check the charm on my brain.”

“Why is this so different from my house?” I asked, staring around at the space. I could smell no other cats, but that wasn’t telling in my altered condition.

“Haven’s a temporary retirement community for immortals,” Gwyn said. “Time here runs a lot faster than it does out there, on Earth, so you can vacation for a few decades in peace with immortals like you. Builds a community. Keeps folks busy, safe, and away from mortals. We’ve all made our houses to suit our fantasies too. You want some coffee?”

“No, but I would enjoy tuna,” I said.

“You can’t have too much tuna. Too much mercury content for a kitten your size.”

I patted my stomach. I was much larger than I used to be. “Perhaps just the juice?”

“Mercury in the packing water too. None for you.” Gwyn grumbled to herself while shuffling through her cabinets. My ears were no longer capable of picking out the words.

I gazed in wonder at the foggy, colorful world around me. I looked up at the chicken curtains more closely. There were very fine cotton threads. They were held back by strings that swayed faintly.

My fingertips brushed the string. It moved faster. I swatted it again, and it bounced harder, and I enjoyed myself playing with it. When it brushed against my face I nipped it too.

Gwyn cleared her throat from the doorway.

I dropped my hands.

“Here you go, darlin’.” She handed me a bowl. There was something meaty in it, but it didn’t smell like fish. “Canned chicken. I’ll see about getting something more nutritionally appropriate for you. Maybe catch some rats. What are you doing?”

I’d stuck my face into the bowl to lap at the meat.

She handed me a silver thing.

“Humans use these,” she said. “It’s called a fork.”

“I know what forks are,” I said, offended. Magic meant I also knew that a kilometer was a thousand meters, chickens were avians, and that dogs were terrible. I was clearly a genius.

I tried to use the fork to get the meat out. It fell on the floor. I got down on all fours and continued to eat, though I used my fingers instead of directly applying face to food.

Gwyn sighed. “Eat up fast. I’ve got a busy day planned and you’re coming with me. You gotta learn to be people now.”

Yarn and Hexes

The errands began with a visit to the place that Gwyn called a Farmer’s Market. It was a collection of simple stalls at the heart of Flynn Bay, the one and only city in Haven. It was sheltered by trees heavy with pink spring blossoms, which snowed with every breeze. The blossoms floated millimeters atop the surface of the packed dirt road. I tried to dart after them but caught few under my bare feet, having refused to wear Gwyn’s shoes. My human skin slapped against the ground.

The scents of the Farmer’s Market were more vivid than elsewhere in the Haven. Previously, things like pumpkins, cherries, and blackberries had held no appeal to me. Now the scents made my tummy grumble.

“Why are we going to the market? What’s here?” I asked. A spider skittered under a bundle of wood. I leaped on the stack, but it was already gone.

“Farmer stuff is here,” Gwyn said. “Stop chasing bugs. Hold my hand.”

“I would rather take a bath,” I sniffed. But I did walk at her side, waiting when she stopped and resisting the urge to swat sun catchers.

There were fruits and vegetables all around me, and while they didn’t look all that appealing, I wouldn’t have minded to chew on some of the stems. She didn’t idle long enough for me to explore, though, and I was catching too many interested looks from the humans with the money to steal anything. My hands were so frustratingly clumsy.

I pawed Gwyn’s shirt. “Do farmers know magic? Could somebody here turn me back?”

“I’m not putting you in some sorcerer’s hands. Suzy’d never forgive me, not when she’s friends with the best mages in the world. No, you’re stuck like this until they come home.”

“I don’t want them to know!” They thought I was absolutely perfect in my natural state. Both loved to rub my toes between their fingers (jellybeans, Izzy called them) and stroke the fur on my belly and allow my twitching tail to slide along their ankles. Over and again, they had told me: You’re our perfect boy, Mr. Poe. They would be rightfully disgusted by this weird body.

“You’re changed, darlin’,” Gwyn said. “This is a secret I can’t keep. You’re a kid now, at least sometimes, and folks need to know so they can take care of you.”

“Please don’t tell them,” I said. “Please help me.”

She nudged me away with the steel toe of her boots. It seemed that Gwyn, with her silver braid and hard eyes, was not a woman to repeat herself. “I need my yarn. Can’t show up for Miss Draconia’s Knitting Circle without yarn. Not like she can’t share one of her thousands of skeins, heck no. I gotta keep my own sheep, shear them, and hire Penny to spin their wool out into yarn so I can... Oh! Penny!”

A small brick building bookended the otherwise wooden stalls. The trees couldn’t grow above the building because a big plume of smoke coming out the back.

A burly blacksmith worked the forge inside. At the sound of her name, she turned. Her skin was dark-green and one large horn spiraled out of her hair, which had much softer curls than mine. She was a particularly bulging example of a noncat. Very well developed, like the bulldog that barks at my window every time he walks past.

“Hello Gwyn,” greeted Penny. She had very large tusks and double sets of vampire fangs. “Who have we here?” She set down her fire-reddened tongs to kneel in front of me. Even on one knee, she was possibly the biggest noncat I’d ever seen. Nonetheless, I was unintimidated; noncats were always much larger than me. All the better to sleep upon.

“What are you?” I asked her instead, reaching up to grab her horn.

She giggled. “I’m a vampire and an orc. That’s why my teeth are pointy and my skin is green.” She turned to Gwyn and asked again, “I haven’t seen any little kids around in ages! Especially not one with such cute eyes. Shifter?”

“He belongs to—” Gwyn began. She was about to tell my secret. I threw myself at her legs, wrapped myself around her ankles, and bit. “Hey!”

Strangely enough, these people laughed in response to my attack. Stranger still, these pathetic teeth of mine couldn’t even penetrate Gwyn’s pants to injure her leg. I was useless.

“It’s my great-grand-nephew,” Gwyn said tightly. One of Penny’s big hands closed on the back of Suzy’s dress and lifted me onto my feet. “He’s barely domesticated,” Gwyn added, slinging me under her arm again. “Tell me that the yarn’s done, Penny.”

“Spun out beautifully. But it looks like you’ve got your arms full. Why don’t I just bring it to Miss Draconia’s tonight?” Penny stepped back when I swiped at her, laughing again. “Assuming you’re coming.”

“And let Miss Draconia hold my absence over my head at our next HOA board meeting? Oh, she’d love that. I’ll be there even if I have to bring my ‘nephew’ in a damn basket.”

That wasn’t necessary. I stopped fighting once I had a few minutes to regain my dignity.

There were bicycles free to borrow all over the Haven, but Gwyn insisted we walk the forest trails back to her house. We left Flynn Bay behind quickly, though the forge’s merry puffs of smoke spiraling into a creamy blue-gold sky remained visible for meters.

I chased pebbles up the road, darting from one side to the other in pursuit.

“You can’t tell my mummies anything about what happened to me,” I said. “That means you can’t tell anybody else either.”

“We’ll see about that,” Gwyn said.

A woman with a hunched back and wild eyes lurched up the road. She was holding hands with another woman, much younger, with many of the same facial features.

“Ah, better step aside here.” Gwyn moved among the trees to make space.

I went nowhere. I had seen the hunched woman outside my window many times, and I always thought she’d looked friendly. She fed the birds a lot. I wondered if she’d feed me tuna.

Her sagging eyes fixed on me. “Ooh, pretty kitty,” she said. When she spoke, I saw thick, short fangs in her mouth. “Here, kitty kitty. Come here, kitty!”

I looked down at myself reflexively. There was no alteration to my form; my body was still human. Somehow, she saw through my skin to the feline within.

“Hi little guy,” said the companion, the taller noncat. The hair on her head was sparkly curly black. “What’s your name?”

“I don’t think that’s any of your business,” I said matter-of-factly. I didn’t mean to be rude, but I wasn’t fussed if that was the outcome. Again: cats are much more practical than noncats.

“Well, I’m Mavis and this is my great-grandma Catherine. Catherine’s mind isn’t as clear as it used to be. Sometimes she says confusing things. She’s usually quite friendly, though,” Mavis said. “Don’t get too close or she might pet you. If she says you’re a cat, she really believes it.”

“Is she immortal, like everyone else?” I asked. “Or is she a mortal pet?” I did not add, Like me, and also the bulldog who lives down the street.

Mavis looked puzzled. “Catherine is immortal.”

Movement among the trees caught Catherine’s attention. She swung around to spot Gwyn trying to step past them, unseen.

“The dead!” gasped Catherine. “The dead!” She clutched at Mavis and began weeping. She was in hysterics. The yowling was so sharp and sudden that it sent me bolting for the side of the road, crawling up Gwyn’s back until she beat me down with her yarn bag.

“Control yourself,” she said gruffly. “I’m sorry,  ladies. Didn’t mean to cause a stir. Come on, kid. Let’s give Mavis some space.”

“Killer! Killer!” the kindly old lady continued to cry.

Gwyn hurried me along. I kept watching over my shoulder as Mavis sobbed. She looked as fearful as a mouse right before getting its skull crunched in my teeth.

“Some vampires have powers,” Gwyn explained under her breath. “Hers is seeing everyone’s true nature. That’s how she knows you’re a cat. For some reason she’s scared of other undead. She’s even more scared of other vampires than zombies. I try to steer clear of her so she’s not bothered, but sometimes it’s hard to manage.”

“Why let Catherine live among other immortals when so many will inevitably be undead? She must present a high risk of community disruption.”

“I hear she’s a hoot with some of the more obscure immortals. Really friendly lady when you’re not undead,” Gwyn said. “She’s part of the community, not a disruption, and we’re lucky to have her around.”

I watched Mavis and Catherine until the trail twisted and separated us, and I could not help but wonder how one vampire might become afraid of all others.

Miss Draconia’s Knitting Circle

Though Miss Draconia’s resplendent mansion down the street was surely spacious enough to host the neighborhood’s biweekly knitting circle, they held it in the community park at the heart of town. It was a pleasantly crisp night so everybody donned sweaters and hats before heading to the gazebo.

A wine cellar had been built underneath the gazebo. It was not too cold once inside the cellar, but the route on foot was long, and I had no choice but to wear a hand-me-down knitted monstrosity from Gwyn. It hung over Suzy’s dress to my ankles, so I looked more like some animate sweater than a werehuman. I could barely move around, but I was certainly warm.

The whispering and clucking began as soon as the noncats bottlenecked into the wine cellar, hurrying to get the best seating on the mismatched couches. There was a fireplace on the very far end of the room, along with a few sparse bookshelves and chairs. The wine was set far back into cubbies with crypt-like masonry framing the racks.

As the immortals gathered in the hazy golden glow of the knitting circle, I caught the eye of several unfamiliar creatures. The Haven was not a large place. The inhabitants recognized a newcomer.

“Is this one of yours?” asked an open-faced noncat with bright-blue eyes and very fat human lips.

“One of Rylie’s Ard grandkids. Just visiting a couple days.” Gwyn ruffled my hair. I liked being petted.

“You’re very cute,” said the noncat, bending over to look at me. She smelled like the musty death trapped underneath rotten autumn leaves. “What’s your name?”

“My name is a prize to be won instead of offered to any harlot who asks for it,” I said.

Her eyes narrowed. “Well, you’re well behaved for one of the Ard, I suppose.”

“Hey,” Gwyn said sharply.

The other woman straightened. “What?”

“Nothing wrong with the Ard. Why would you say that to an Ard child anyway? Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to find my seat.” Gwyn swung around on her boot heel, took my hand, and pulled me away from the conversation.

“What’s an Ard?” I asked, prowling beside her as she weaved through the couches. She still wasn’t letting me out of her sight lest I disappear.

“They’re considered the lower class of the sidhe. Closer to animals, more diversity in physical appearance.”

“Ah yes. The Ard are a faction spanning all four sidhe Courts, once treated as cattle, now unionized to protect their labor rights despite the inferiority of their magic to that of the sidhe gentry.”

Gwyn scratched her chin. “What magical artifact did you say you ate?”

“The Ring of Bau.”

“Why’s that mean you know history?”

“Because I’m very smart,” I said primly, washing my fingers. I still tasted like the egg soufflé that Gwyn had made me for dinner. “Am I Ard?”

“Probably not,” Gwyn said. “They’re born that way. You were made.”

“I’m confused,” I said.

“Join the club,” she grumbled.

She selected a couch with enough room for both of us. I didn’t mind curling up with my legs underneath me, and I held her yarn bag gladly when she dropped it into my lap. Gwyn extracted a very large pair of wooden knitting needles.

“What is a ‘Knitting Circle,’ anyway?” I asked Gwyn, sticking my head into her bag to lick the yarn. “Does it involve ritual kitten sacrifice?”

“You ask a lotta questions for something that picked up English this morning.” She put a finger under my chin to lift my head out of the yarn bag.

“I’m a very smart, very perfect boy,” I informed her.

Whatever questions I had about the knitting circle were promptly answered. It was clearly a code for time that noncats spent gossiping, drinking excessive wine, and telling tall tales about their grandchildren.

It became quickly obvious that Miss Draconia was the belle of her own ball. I identified her easily—she was the one who deliberately pulled a large wing backed chair in front the fire pit, as though she were a queen intending to hold court. She wore an extravagant dress unbefitting such a humble community ceremony. I wanted to chew on the lace collar.

She laughed too loudly. It made my hackles lift.

“I see why you hate her,” I said. “Clearly she is vying for dominance. You should get the high ground and slap her in the face. It worked against my brothers when we were all locked in the bathroom.”

“You’ve got a couple good ideas in there, but don’t you go worrying about that now. Grown-up trouble isn’t for kittens.” Gwyn gave a dry laugh. “Even a very smart, very perfect kitten who managed to get himself turned human.”

I was so offended. “Human shifter.”

“You shifted since becoming human?” she asked.

She knew very well that I had not. I felt a strange heat plucking at my eyes and sneezed. Droplets slid down my cheeks. “What’s that?” I asked, jerking my head back and thrashing to try to shake it off.

“You’re crying. Those are tears. Sorry—I was being mean, wasn’t I? You talk like a little old British man reading Jane Austen audiobooks and I forgot that kittens are, well, kids.” Gwyn’s face was a little softer when she dabbed at my cheeks with a napkin.

Now that these “tears” had started flowing, I couldn’t seem to stop. “What do I do if I can’t turn back into myself?” I whispered to Gwyn. “How long will it be until my mummies get home?”

She smoothed my hair down. “I promise you’re gonna be safe, no matter what.”

I disconsolately licked the yarn again.

“Just lay down on the couch, all right?” She pulled the string out of my mouth. “Lay down, close your eyes, catch a break. I’ll try not to talk too long. Just gotta find a sorcerer who can help you with your little problem. Sinead came tonight—I’ll see if she’s got anything up her sleeves.”

I rested on the couch while Gwyn went to talk with Sinead.

My eyelids were heavy. The pillow was very soft and warm. Normally I slept through the boring parts of the day, but today hadn’t been boring at all, so I was exhausted. The room was filled with people talking and laughing—especially Miss Draconia, loudest of all—but even the one-upmanship in regards to grandchildren and click of knitting needles couldn’t keep me on this side of consciousness.

I dropped into sleep.

* * *

I woke up to the sound of screaming.

Within heartbeats, I was behind the couch, puffed to my full size, staring wildly around for any sign of the attacking cat. Screams had to mean a fight between cats.

Then I realized that my hands and feet were still human, and the screams were human too.

My head popped up over the back of the couch.

Gwyn and Miss Draconia were fighting.

It looked much more vicious than any fight I’d gotten into with my litter mates, even without hissing and spitting.

Gwyn threw proper punches. I could tell. I had watched my mummies practice-fighting in their back yard while I, much more sensible, performing my post-breakfast face-cleansing on the porch. Gwyn put her whole weight behind the blows, and she hit squarely.

On the other hand, Miss Draconia was more feline, arching high and keeping back so that she could take less damage. She flashed fang too. She was the type of noncat known as a vampire, after all, and that was likely the only reason she bore the brunt of Gwyn’s blows so skillfully.

“That’s what you get for voting to change the standard fence staining around the entire Haven!” snarled Gwyn after one good uppercut.

Miss Draconia’s laugh was cold. “This coming from a woman who wants to sleep among barn animals?”

“I’d rather sleep with them than you!”

Both of them launched into one another and the knitting circle’s shrieks seemed to egg them on.

They tumbled. Gwyn finally managed to punch Miss Draconia hard enough to send her flying into a wall, and a wine rack fell. Bricks crumbled inward, brittle from age.

Dust filled the room.

“Oh, you two!”

A larger figure waded through the crowd. Penny the Vampire Orc Blacksmith reached into the dust, extracting Gwyn and Miss Draconia. She was tall enough to hold the women apart no matter how hard they swung their fists.

“You ruined my knitting circle!” snarled Miss Draconia.

“You’re a dusty old hag!” snarled Gwyn.

“All right, break it up.” Penny dropped them and shoved them apart. “This is a retirement home for immortals. It’s a resort. Both of you know fighting is forbidden, and I don’t think you want me reporting this at Town Hall!”

Her warning seemed to be meaningful to them. They settled down.

“How did this start?” Penny asked. She was a very patient vampire orc blacksmith.

“I was talking to Sinead and Miss Draconia butted in where her nose weren’t wanted,” Gwyn said.

“This is my knitting circle,” countered the vampire. “It’s my job as hostess to greet everyone, and Ms. McGrath is an esteemed guest.”

“Ms. McGrath left the instant you wafted over stinking of rosewater!”

“Because you started a fight!”

The old women lunged, and only Penny’s arms could keep them apart.

Her arms, and all the debris resulting from the crumbled cellar wall. There were bricks everywhere. Now that I realized they weren’t moving, I walked over and kicked one to show it I was unafraid.

“What a mess,” Miss Draconia said, straightening her lacy collar indignantly. “All right, everyone get out of the basement. Quickly, now, before the dust settles on all our yarn bowls.”

There were cries of dismay and the scurrying of immortal feet as people hurried to gather their belongings.

Perhaps that was why they were all too distracted to notice what was on the other side of the wine cellar’s wall.

I didn’t miss a detail.

Even my dull human eyes could make out the small room that had been hidden behind the wine rack. Perhaps a closet, rather. It was still hard to tell what spaces humans considered small. My head would fit into it so the rest of me would too, and that meant it was a room.

Currently the only thing in that room was a desiccated corpse that looked like the mouse I’d killed behind the refrigerator, where my mummies had yet to notice it.

“What’s that?” I asked Gwyn, creeping closer to sniff at it.

“Get out, everyone out,” Miss Draconia was still saying. She tried to sweep me up the stairs with the other knitters. I ducked under her arm and peered through the hole.

“That’s a dead body right there,” Gwyn said from behind me. “Right behind the wine rack with the bottles from Amontillado. Ha!”

I looked at her.

She coughed and stopped smiling.

“That looks like a…” Miss Draconia’s eyes went wide. As with cats, that was meant to indicate shock, or perhaps a moment of high arousal. “That’s a vampire! A vampire killed here? In Haven?”

“Has that ever happened?” Penny asked, peering over her shoulder. “What do we even do about this? We can’t just report a dead body to Town Hall. We’re going to need more than a city counsel meeting to figure this one out!”

“That’s the Haven Sheriff’s job,” Miss Draconia said.

Gwyn nodded. “Yeah, it is.” She fished around in her knitting bag. She came up with a brass star inside a leather wallet, which she polished with her sleeve before hanging it on her belt. “At last, something actually interesting happening around here.”

Sheriff Gwyn

Disappointingly, Sinead had not left the knitting circle early to concoct a cure. She’d promised Gwyn that she would research the Ring of Bau. I could only hope her search would yield results before my mummies crossed the juncture into Haven again.

I spent the night sleeping curled at the foot of Gwyn’s bed. Every time she woke, she tried to move me back to the couch, but I returned the instant she closed her eyes again. I was used to sleeping between my mummies. I wasn’t good at being alone. The hours had passed too slowly.

For breakfast, we had eggs.

“I eat mostly eggs,” Gwyn said, putting a plate in front of me. “The chickens make more than I can even give away.”

I lapped at them. They were fine. “Do zombies eat?”

“Sure,” she said.

“Do you digest?”

“Not really,” she said. “I don’t need the fuel. I’m kept running by magic.” She tapped the tiny bird skull inside her necklace again.

“Do you excrete the food in a manner similar to its appearance after chewing?”

“Pretty much. It’s kinda drier by then, since my body soaks up the fluids. That’s what helps move it along. Plus a tall glass of Metamucil.” She sat across from me with eggs and something orange to drink.

“That’s fascinating,” I said.

“I’m fascinated by what your brain does and doesn’t know.” She swirled the orange drink, took a sip. “Wonder if we could get the Ring of Bau out the other end. Feed you a bunch of fiber.”

I imagined trying to produce the ring in my litter box. Or worse: a human toilet, of which there were few in the Haven. A very unpleasant thought.

Our investigation began after breakfast. We started with the winery that supplied the wine cellar.

The winery was run by Rebecca Manzanilla, a sylph who had retired from the Summer Court. It only made sense for one of the faerie folk to produce the alcohol enjoyed in Haven. Lushes comprised the entire breed. They found sex and drink irresistible, according to Gwyn.

"It's a good thing we've only got one sidhe in this neck of Haven, let me tell you," Gwyn muttered on our way up the driveway. "I don't know about you, but I only need so many sex parties at my retirement home."

I blinked at her slowly, then looked away.

“How did the vampire die?” I asked. We had agreed that I should accompany Gwyn on the murder investigation—I was curious, and Gwyn didn’t trust me home alone—but she had refused to let me examine the body. Instead, Penny had shook her keychain at me. I had been too distracted by the jingle to listen in on the town healer’s analysis.

“Starvation,” Gwyn said. “If there’s a body left after a vampire dies, it’s gotta be starvation. There’s a lotta different kind of vampires, but most of them crumble into ash if they die in any violent way.”

I considered this information as we continued our approach to the winery. The distance through the grapevines would not have been long as the laser pointer flies, but the path was twistier than knotted string.

“If this is a murder, then he must have been built into the wall and left to starve,” I concluded.

She peered at me from underneath the shadowy brim of her hat. She was dressed for a hot morning in Haven, but the wind blowing through Flynn Bay smelled salty. “Not a bad hypothesis, kiddo. You think it might not have been a murder?”

“One time I got stuck behind the couch,” I said.

She gave a husky laugh that reminded me of my birth mother’s purr. “This was a murder. I’m guessing it’s personal. Starving to death takes ages for a vampire, if it happens at all, and that’s excruciating. Someone wanted this guy to hurt.”

We finally arrived at the house and its gardens. Rebecca Manzanilla was seated in an autumnal courtyard bathed by crystalline sunlight. She was swirling her fingers through a fountain of wine, lounging on a chaise, and eating squares of cheese. She clearly considered size to be more important than quantity, in regards to her breasts, and dressed emphasize them. I was not impressed.

I stood in the doorway, back arched, waiting for this vain noncat to attack.

"Hello Gwyneth.” Rebecca’s lips curved into an almost feline smile as we approached. "What brings you to my neck of the woods?"

“A murder most foul, surprisingly.” Gwyn was not as showy as Rebecca but beautiful in her sturdy plainness. Her hair was the smoky silver color of my birth mother's fur. She now wore a jacket made of tassels that looked fun to attack and leather that looked fun to chew.

Rebecca placed her fingers over her chest. “A murderer? In Haven?”

I walked sideways into the courtyard, chest puffed out so that I appeared bigger, and stood behind Gwyn. The leather smell was stronger at her back. I suspected she would swat me again if I tried to chew on her sleeve, so I resisted.

“The body was in a wine cellar storing your Amontillado. Can you explain that?” Gwyn asked.

"If there's wine in Haven, it’s my wine.” Rebecca scooped her hands through the basin to bring wine to her lips.

I edged out from behind Gwyn and swatted at the rippling wine.

Rebecca finally noticed me. Her noncat face seem to convey joy. "A child, in Haven?"

"He's visiting me," Gwen said. “One of my niece’s grandkids or something. I dunno. Can’t keep track of that whole family tree.”

“Then you’re a shifter from the line of Rylie Gresham. What an honor. And you're so cute!” Rebecca reached toward me. I darted behind Gwyn again, where I felt safer. “You don't have to be afraid. It’s contrary to the nature of the sidhe to kill. There’s no pleasure in death. The pain of it weakens us.”

"And yet your kingdoms have spent the last century fighting endless wars,” Gwyn said. “But I believe you, Rebecca. The victim’s a vampire. You’re not the type to cross vampires, and you’re not the type to risk breaking Haven’s laws.”

“No character testimonial from you?” she asked.

“Ha. Not a chance.”

Rebecca’s eyebrows looked funny, twisted up together. She let the wine dribble from between her fingers and flicked the droplets to the mossy cobblestone underneath her chair. “If you don’t need anything else, you should take your nephew and leave.” She surveyed me again, and her expression relaxed. “You’re actually welcome to stay if you want, angel. I miss children. It’s the only thing I miss since I fled the Courts.”

I hid underneath the fringe on Gwyn’s jacket.

“I’m not done here,” Gwyn said. “I’m gonna show you a picture of the dead body. It's not pretty, but I need to know if you recognize him."

Rebecca fanned her eyelashes at us, and I wish I could swat at those too. “Very well."

Gwyn produced a photograph. Rebecca winced, so she must have been easily disturbed. I’d killed many an errant mouse in far messier ways. Despite having been mummified by conditions within the wall, the deader-than-usual vampire had still been recognizable as a vampire. I liked to leave mice post-digestion in my litter box.

Rebecca took time to study the image. "I don't recognize him, but you should check Town Hall. That bracelet is worn by people assisting the Librarians. See?" She pointed at the photograph.

"Can't believe I didn't spot that," Gwyn said. "You have good eyes."

When Rebecca smiled, the world pulsed with pink and red, and my nose twitched at the smell of flowers. “Will you come again when you’re not being sheriff? You know how I've been missing you, Gwyn.”

“I’m not missing you,” she said.

"Don't play with my heart."

Gwyn put an arm around my shoulders, steering me away from the winery. "I don't make a practice of having a heart when I'm dealing with people without them."

Town Hall

Our walk leaving Rebecca’s winery was warm and pleasant. Appropriately, Town Hall was at the center of town, beyond the market and beside the murder scene, and Gwyn chose to cut through the valley instead of taking the longer forested road. Heat shimmered over the dirt. We were flanked by fields of grapes and corn.

On the way, I captured a very crunchy grasshopper. I finished eating it before we got back to Flynn Bay.

“Is it a coincidence that the scene of the crime is so close to the winery?" I asked.

"Everything in Haven is close,” Gwyn said. She kept a hand on her belt when she walked, as if reminding herself of the sheriff’s star. “This is a pocket dimension. If you have a couple days and strong legs, you can walk a full circle around the whole thing. Pretty much a tiny inside-out planet.”

“How does night happen, then?”

"The sky you see is fake, nothing but magic.” She waved like she could swat it out of the air. “You’re smart to think about how close everything is. Haven is tiny. Everyone knows each other. I'm surprised that we haven't had more murders by now.”

“Why haven’t you murdered Miss Draconia?” I asked.

I liked her chuckle. “Not everyone adds nice things to the community, like Mavis and Catherine. Doesn’t mean we can kill ‘em.” Gwyn walked ahead of me, so I wasn’t sure if I imagined her muttering, “Unfortunately.”

The trees outside Town Hall were bright-orange in contrast to the rosy pink surrounding the Farmer’s Market. Carved pumpkins smiled at me from the doorstep. Crimson garland trimmed the table with the guest book inside.

The foyer was very large. I didn't like it one bit. I’d quickly grown accustomed to being in smaller, safer places.

When I wouldn't get away from the door, hunched up and hissing, Gwyn scooped me into her arms and carried me like a human baby.

I thrashed. "Let me down! How dare you! I am a man with dignity!"

"If you act like a baby, you get treated like a baby. Those are the rules." She hefted me through a doorway and down spiral stairs.

"I am not a baby! I'm a cat!”

Gwyn set me on the basement landing hard and kneeled in front of me. Her weathered face was kind. “I’ve told you once and I’ll tell you again: You look like a person now. Learning how to pass as human might keep you safe someday.”

“I have no interest in it,” I said. “Aside from one dead vampire, the Haven is always safe.”

"Cat or human, you’re young. You don’t know what’s going to happen down the road. Plus, the hissing and spitting is a waste of time. I’m trying to solve a murder, and just because I’m immortal doesn’t mean I’ve got all day.”

She softened her words by petting me. She rubbed the spots above my eyebrows that I liked so much. It was difficult not to melt into her expert hands.

"Very well," I said resentfully. "But…"

"What?"

“This building is very big and scary and I can't see very far.” Its ceiling was so high that it was dark. I couldn’t see around any of the doors, either. The sounds that came from other rooms were confusing, since everything echoed. “Will you hold my hand?"

I had rejected such a demand earlier and it would have been justice for Gwyn to do the same.

But she took my hand and walked me through the Town Hall’s records room.

Gwyn’s fingers were wrinkly-soft. I focused on the dots of increased melanin on the skin, her dull-tipped nails, the little gray hairs. Zombie hands were familiar to me. They made me feel like I was safe.

A desk in the back was staffed by several red-robed creatures. Gwyn approached one noncat that resembled an animal rather than a human—something with oblong eyes, a curly little beard, and horns jutting from her forehead. The hands protruding from her robes were childlike as mine.

“What do you need, Sheriff?” asked the horned thing. She sounded like a human, too.

“I know you’re busy, Onoskelis, so I’ll keep this short.” Gwyn took out the photo. She didn’t warn Onoskelis that the dead body was coming; she simply placed the photograph on the desk.

Onoskelis looked at the photo. Her mouth didn’t move.

I heard her thoughts, though.

Azoic. Unfortunate.

“I don’t recognize him,” Onoskelis said aloud.

Her words and thoughts seemed to be in direct contradiction. This was a phenomenon that noncats engaged in frequently: lying. Cats don’t bother lying because we can always tell the truth. This was more often because of physical signals, like twitching whiskers, than being able to read thoughts directly.

“He’s wearing a black cord like the folks authorized to help maintain records here,” Gwyn said. “You’ve been in Haven ever since it got reopened as a retirement home for immortals. You’d have tied that cord around his wrist yourself.”

One hundred thirteen years ago. Yes. Azoic served almost fifty years.

“I will have to refer to my records,” Onoskelis said.

Her thoughts cascaded, faster and louder, as she thought her way around the problem. Reading her felt like trying to track a fly around the room.

He is dead. I must complete the records.

It will be easier to correct the course of things without outside intervention.

Do not give the Sheriff information.

“It may take time to find the information you want,” Onoskelis said. I was dizzy from trying to chase down her train of thought.

Gwyn sighed. “I know this might seem like it’s not a rush to you. An immortal dead among a lot of other immortals? But now that we’ve found the body, the murderer’s gonna know they’ve been found. They’re gonna try to slip the Haven.”

“Monitor the juncture. Close the passage.”

“There’s gonna be a big stink if I do that,” she said. “And I’m going to make the biggest stink of all because I’ve got to get this kid back to his family as soon as possible.” She forcefully ruffled my hair. “Is there anything I can do to make this go faster?”

Onoskelis gave her a blank look.

Inside, the horned thing was thinking, I will execute the killer tonight.

Gwyn slapped the brim of her hat against her palm. “All right, I get it. You know where to find me if you find any information on this guy.”

We headed back toward the stairs.

I waited until we were several meters away from the desk before saying, “She’s lying.”

“What? How can you tell that?” Gwyn asked.

“She was thinking it loud and clear.”

“I can’t hear what demons are thinking,” she said.

“Oh,” I said. “Evidently I can. I assumed it was a human trait.” Out of habit, I started licking the back of my hand. Gwyn slapped my wrist. “Ow!”

“Remember, pass for human,” she said. “Or at least like a human-to-animal shifter instead of the other way around.”

“Pray tell, how am I meant to do that? I didn’t realize that humans cannot read demon thoughts even when they’re thinking so loudly. I don’t know how you groom yourselves. You can’t even lick the dirty parts without help.”

“Let’s start by stopping that licking,” Gwyn said sternly. “Can you read my thoughts right now?”

I stared at her face the way I had been staring at Onoskelis’s, but I could not hear any inner voice from the sheriff. “Not right now.”

“Interesting. Wonder if it’s because I’m a zombie. We’re nulls for a lot of powers.” She surveyed me thoughtfully. “You swallowed that ring and turned human first thing. Then you got a whole lot of smarts out of nowhere.”

“I’ve always been very clever,” I said matter-of-factly.

“And it took a minute, but now you’re psychic,” she said. “Who knows what other powers you might develop?”

Perhaps I would become flexible enough to give myself the tongue-bath I so desperately needed. Humans were filthy.

“If I’m getting to be too much of a handful, you’ll have to find a local sorcerer to fix me before my mummies come home,” I said. “Surely the risk in being handled by a second-rate magician is still less than letting my magical powers grow unchecked.”

“Nice try, kiddo. I can handle any powers you’ve got. I’ve helped raise divines!” She held my hand more firmly and began walking me to the stairs again. “What was Onoskelis lying about?”

“She knows the victim,” I said. “His name is Azoic.”

Gwyn’s eyes brightened. She swung on her heel to weave through the bookshelves instead. “Azoic. Good. We can look him up. Anyone who’s ever visited or lived in Haven is listed down here. The Librarians keep perfect records.”

I lurked at her back as she searched the stacks.

After some time, she found a large book, which she carried to a desk before opening. It was so big that its open pages covered the entire surface.

She muttered to herself as she flipped through the pages.

“Azoic, Azoic… Gotta be the last of the A names…”

“What are you looking for?” I asked, tracking the delicate feathers of the pages as they fluttered through the air.

“This is a work log,” Gwyn said. “Anyone who’s worked for or with the Haven’s listed in one of these logs. I’m not sure how far back we’ll have to go—”

“He went missing fifty years ago.”

“Then I’ve got the wrong book,” she said.

She shuffled back into the stacks, but I remained with the book. I nibbled on the page corner. It tasted woodsy, like something I might nibble in my mummy’s yard.

Gwyn caught me. She swatted me on the back of the head and I slunk away.

She went through several of those huge books before finally exclaiming in victory. “Ah ha! I found Azoic! Full name was Azoic Kanen, and he lived down on Springview Court.”

“Do we need to research Springview Court too?” I asked, eyeing a few tasty books.

“Nope, we’ll just head over,” she said. “You’re not going to believe who currently lives on Springview Court.”

Azoic

Springview Court was a cluster of cottages overlooking a field of wildflowers. When we approached, I was pleased to see that Mavis and Catherine were sitting on the wraparound porch in front of a pink cottage. Gwyn stepped back into the trees before they could see her.

“I can’t question Catherine without upsetting her,” Gwyn said. “Go over there and find out what you can about Azoic.”

I stared at her. “You want me to question a suspect in a murder?”

“She’s not a suspect, and you’ve been watching me question people all day. You’re a smart little guy. You can get the information we need.” She ruffled my hair again. “All the nice things Izzy and Suzy say about you are true.”

I swelled with such satisfied warmth that I felt ten feet taller.

Alone, I marched down the court to the pink cottage. Mavis and Catherine brightened when they saw me coming.

“Here kitty kitty,” Catherine said, holding her hand toward me.

I obligingly trotted over.

“Careful, she’ll definitely pet you,” Mavis said.

“Yes, good,” I said, butting my head into her hand. Catherine happily stroked my hair. “Hello Catherine. My name is Mr. Poe.”

“Mr. Poe,” she said warmly, fondly, raking her fingernails behind my right ear. It felt just as good in noncat form as it was in cat form. “You’re a handsome boy, Mr. Poe.”

“Yes I am,” I said.

“So cute,” Mavis said. “How can we help you, Mr. Poe? Are you lost?”

“Not at all. I’m helping Sheriff Gwyn investigate a murder.”

Mavis set her phone down and gave me her full attention. “You're helping her investigate a murder? It doesn’t seem very responsible to me. You can’t be very old.”

Approximately five months old, in fact.

“I’m quite mature for my age,” I said, and then I resumed trying to figure out how to purr over Catherine’s ministrations.

I caught a glimpse of Gwyn waving her arms at me from the forest. She was making some violent gestures, which I interpreted to mean I should stop behaving like a cat. I was a human for the moment. Humans apparently did not accept pets from other humans.

“Murder?” Catherine asked. Her fingernails felt so nice. She looked much happier than yesterday. Gwyn may have feared for my future, but for the moment, I was perfectly safe and happy and not going to reject a good petting.

“A man named Azoic was killed fifty years ago,” I said. “He lived here. Did either of you know him?”

Mavis looked puzzled. “That’s well before my time. Catherine?”

The old vampire couldn’t seem to respond. Her crimson eyes were wide, her jaw slack, eyebrows trembling.

I wondered if I could listen to them the way I had Onoskelis. I ignored my physical ears and focused inward.

Azoic. Azoic. Azoic. Azoic. Catherine’s thoughts were painfully repetitive, which gave me a headache.

Mavis’s thoughts were no more interesting. Such a cute kid, talking so articulately. He reminds me of a tiny faerie John Oliver. I should finish watching John Oliver. My finals for 21st century TV are coming up, aren’t they? I should ask Bucky about it. God, why hasn’t Bucky kissed me yet? Mom needs to come back so I can stop caretaking for Catherine long enough to leave Haven for a date. Ugh, but I always miss Catherine when I leave. I don’t want to leave. Bucky should get a visa.

If it were possible to bite someone’s thoughts, I would have. It was such a noisy jangle.

“Who was Azoic?” I asked.

Catherine said, “My husband. She killed him.”

Azoic. Azoic. Azoic.

“I thought Grandpa went missing,” Mavis said. “Dad told me that he went to the Nether Worlds.”

Catherine shook her head as if trying to clear cobwebs from inside of her skull. “I’ve told you that’s wrong before. He was never missing. She killed him and nobody ever believed me. Even then, she was too popular.”

“Who?” I asked, listening closely to her thoughts.

Azoic. Azoic. Azoic.

It had been fifty years since her husband’s death, and his name was still the only thing on her mind.

“Nobody ever believes me,” she said, looking down at her hands.

A familiar feeling suffused me—a magnetic draw to pain. It was as though my soul could hear Catherine’s soul weeping. Whenever one of my mummies cried, I would curl in her lap and purr until she no longer had reason to cry. I could not do this with Catherine. I resembled tiny faerie John Oliver.

But I could take her hand. I could deliver the news.

“Catherine, your husband’s body was found,” I said. “He was buried undead and starved to a permanent death.”

Mavis looked horrified. Gwyn was shaking her head at me from the trees, paler than even a zombie should have been.

But even though Catherine’s crimson eyes filled with sadness, she was smiling, too. “I knew it.” She bowed her head over our joined hands and wept tearlessly. I could not purr, but I remained. For almost an hour, I remained.

* * *

Purl Two, Stab One

Of course, Sheriff Gwyn had already solved the murder by the time I returned to her.

“I heard everything,” Gwyn said grimly, shoving her phone in her front pocket. “I’ve spent the last hour clearing what we’ve gotta do next. The justice rushed the warrant through, so we’re good to go.” She caught my hand and took me toward a street I knew well—the street that I lived on. Except instead of taking the road, where people rode bicycles, she took me through the gardens behind the houses.

“What do we ‘gotta do next’?” I tromped through long grass happily, watching the gnats swirl when I disturbed them.

Gwyn was like a hunter hacking through the jungle of weeds with grim determination. “You’re a smart boy. Tell me who you think committed this crime.”

“Miss Draconia,” I said promptly.

She missed a step. “Wow.”

“What? Am I wrong?”

“No, you’re right,” she said. “I’m just surprised you figured it out that fast. What tipped you off? The fact that Catherine accused someone popular? The close proximity between the pink cottage and Miss Draconia’s back yard? The fact that Miss Draconia was in a hurry to get everyone out of the wine cellar before anyone could see the body?”

“You were eager to get permission to finish this case and she’s your rival,” I said.

Her expression got pinched. “You read my mind.”

“I didn’t have too. I’m simply very clever.”

“You’re not clever enough to hear me when I tell you good sense,” she said. “Some people take Catherine seriously. If she calls you out for being a cat, they’ll know something’s up. You’ll be in danger.”

“I heard you, but I have elected not to care,” I said. “Cats are much more practical than noncats. I’m not going to invest into new skills when I have no intent of remaining human, Ard, shifter, or whatever I am.”

She opened a garden gate so I could go through. “Sinead’s not sure you’ll ever turn back. Some magic sticks when you get it inside. I’m not saying it to scare you, or make you cry, but because—”

“Because you have experienced discrimination in the past and you would like to spare me from the same.” I trotted through someone’s flowerbed. We were getting close to the big pink house.

“That’s not… How did you know?” Gwyn asked. “Wait. Because you’re a very clever boy.”

“You’re clever too,” I said.

“Well, it’s true. I’ve seen people hurt for the things that make them different. I’m a lesbian and that got me beat up twice, back in the day. I saw a lot worse happen to shifters by the government. There are still a lot of mundane mortal humans who’d have a go at an Ard child if they caught them alone.”

“Humanity is terrible, yes. It was a vampire that killed Azoic Kanen, though. There is no protection from someone who wants to hurt me. I will not live inauthentically for the illusion of a shield,” I said.

She stopped and stared at me. “Huh. Where’d that insight come from?”

“Being a cat means much time in idle contemplation. I had difficulty sleeping last night. Also, I’m a very clever—”

“I heard you the first seventy times. Maybe you’re right.” She took her hat off, fanned herself with it. “That’s the hard part of immortality. I’m a snapshot of the woman I was when I died, biases and all. I’ll stop trying to make you act like something you’re not.” After a thoughtful pause, she added, “I’m sorry.”

“There is nothing to apologize for. I’m having such fun with you.” I darted ahead to pounce a toad. “I’ve been very helpful with the investigation. Haven’t I, Sheriff? I’m so very—”

I was cut off by a hand grabbing me by the scruff. I was yanked off my feet, the dress’s collar biting into my throat, words reduced to gargling. My swipes were ineffectual.

Miss Draconia had descended upon me silently.

I was seized. “Put me down! How dare you?!”

“Well, well, well, speak of the Devil herself,” Gwyn said, loudly enough that her voice rang clear over my useless protests. “I was just coming around to arrest you for murdering Azoic.”

“I expected you would do something like that, you crusading little snit,” Miss Draconia said. It was strange to hear someone talking down to Gwyn. It seemed blasphemous, in a way.

“You should have faced consequences for Azoic Kanen fifty years ago, and you know what happens now: either you willingly submit to the Oracles or I kill you with the authority vested in me as Haven sheriff.”

“Authority.” The vampire mimicked the word in a nasally tone. “You’ve dedicated your entire undead life to making me miserable over a petty little grudge!”

Gwyn’s patience seemed to be fraying. She looked as angry as when she’d been pulled off Miss Draconia the night before. “Nobody’s allowed to cast blood magic in Haven without securing a permit first. You knew you were up to something risky. All that smoke was presenting a public health hazard—”

“We’re immortals.” Miss Draconia shook me gently and I began thrashing anew. “Most of us.”

“Visiting mortals have a right to safety, and immortals have a right to see their mortal family. I had to report unauthorized blood magic to the HOA.”

“It’s my home and I can do what I want inside of it!” Miss Draconia snarled.

“Oh, that’s your argument? You took cuttings from my rose bush without asking. I know you broke into my greenhouse to steal those sprouts. You’ve got no respect for my property like you’ve got for yours!” Gwyn seemed to completely snap. “And you never share your yarn with me even though you know how impossible that is to import!”

Miss Draconia was strong for such a lean lady. She shifted her grip so that she could slam my back against the rear wall of a house.

It didn’t hurt, but I didn’t like it. My bare feet were clawless. Rabbit kicking did no good.

“Stop! Put him down!” Gwyn demanded.

Miss Draconia bared her vampire teeth. “Why should I listen to you?”

“He’s a child. Just a little kid.”

I’d have protested that I wasn’t “just” a “little” anything, but I could not speak. I couldn’t even mewl. It was getting difficult to breathe.

“Everyone starts as a child. They grow to adults, and then they age, and then they die.” Her fingers tightened, and I squeaked. “Azoic Kanen was a predator. He drank human blood on Earth. He had no right to being in the Haven—a place of strict nonviolence.”

“You should have reported him.”

“I tried, but they said there was no proof. Furthermore, they insisted that he hadn’t hurt anyone in Haven, so he presented no current danger.” She scoffed. “I saw Azoic Kanen drink straight from the femoral more than a few times. The man was a classic Dracula. If he hadn’t taken advantage of his authority in the Haven while working with the Librarians, then it was only by chance. A predator is always a predator.”

“Sounds like you’re projecting.” Gwyn knuckled back her hat. “Put the kid down and submit to extradition, or else.”

“I’m not going to submit to any fascist’s idea of justice. I’ll be leaving of my own volition, returning to my old home on Earth where the neighbors have a little more taste.”

Gwyn pulled out her giant wooden knitting needles. They were the closest thing to a weapon on her body.

The fight last night had been violent enough without weapons.

I suddenly realized it was possible I might actually get hurt.

“I’ll give you to the count of three to put him down,” said the Sheriff.

“You can’t make me.” Miss Draconia began backing away, my body snapped against hers by that one firm arm. She smelled of rose perfume and chocolate chip cookies. “Don’t come for me. I’ll break your little nephew in half over my knee and suck all his glittering blood before you—”

Something hard struck us from behind. In her surprise, Miss Draconia dropped me.

I fell to the hard-packed dirt path in the garden. My bottom struck the ground first, and very hard. It made me squeak when I bounced.

After the squeak came a burp.

The Ring of Bau popped out of my mouth.

I twisted in midair and landed from my bounce on four small paws covered in black fur. Suzy’s white dress fluttered around me in huge folds. It felt as though I were in a circus tent. The slimy little Ring of Bau sat before me, almost as big as my head, and I wondered how I’d eaten that in the first place.

My body was once more feline.

It only took a moment to accept this fact and pop out through the neck hole. I looked up in time to see that Miss Draconia was impaled on Gwyn’s knitting needles.

If I’d still had a human face, I would have been gawking. The red-robed Librarian, Onoskelis, had snuck up from behind and shoved Miss Draconia, thus ensuring that she would be killed upon a pair of makeshift wooden stakes.

Now Miss Draconia was dissolving, halfway to ash, while Gwyn watched with grim resolve.

“Looks like I get all your yarn now,” said the Sheriff. “Justice served.”

Miss Draconia fell to dust.

Aunt Gwyneth

The Librarian exchanged words with Gwyn once the vampire was naught but dust in the wind, and what came out of Onoskelis’s mouth was wildly different than ran through her skull.

“That was a fortunate accident,” the Librarian said dispassionately.

We did well today. Balance has been restored by our swift action. She sounded even more pleased than I felt whenever given a bowl of tuna by Izzy.

“I could have gotten her back to the Oracles if you waited,” Gwyn said.

“Still, a fortunate accident.” The red-cloaked animal turned to stroll back to the road.

As for me… Well, as soon as Gwyn realized my dress was on the ground, she dropped to her knees and started searching around the dusty garden. “Mr. Poe? Where’d you go, pumpkin?”

I slunk out from under the blackberry bush, belly low, nose extended. She held still so that I could sniff her fingers.

“Shoot, I forgot how tiny you are,” she said.

I nuzzled her head with my hand. We solved a murder today.

“Yes we did,” Gwyn said, and then her eyes got wide. “Wait. Did you just—”

I am a very clever, very handsome, very perfect psychic kitten, I informed her.

She gave a low chuckle. “Nothing worse than a spoiled cat gone sapient. And you can tell Cèsar I said that, next time you see him.” She scooped me into the crook of her arm and gave a nice long pet along my spine. “You can go home now you’re a kitten again.”

I will not chew anything else, I promise, I said.

She stooped to pick up Suzy’s dress. The Ring of Bau tumbled out, so she picked that up too. Gwyn peered at it closely. “I’m afraid I don’t know enough about artifacts to make a guess and a half about this. I think there might still be a couple of stones in your belly, though. It’s got empty brackets. We might want to check your litter box for the next few days.”

I’ll leave that to the experts. I had so many naps to catch up on after my exhausting time as a bipedal noncat thing.

Gwyn’s house was closer than mine, so she took me there to towel off all the dust. I even submitted to a bathing. The idea of licking Miss Draconia into my system was wholly unappealing.

With the help of a very fluffy towel and a blow dryer, I remained comfortably warm.

Shortly after my bath, while I was still enjoying a nap in Gwyn’s lap, the Sheriff took a phone call. I dozed without listening in. She woke me by rolling one of my paws through her fingers.

“Suzy says she’ll be home tomorrow,” Gwyn said. “I told her you escaped and will be here with me. You can sleep at the foot of my bed tonight.”

I purred loudly in agreement.

We slept restfully in a community with one less murderer in it.

Suzy arrived early in the morning indeed. I’d barely gotten through my stretches when she knocked on the door.

“Hey love,” Gwyn said. She took Suzy into her arms, and they kissed the way that my mummies kiss. I had to assume that this was simply what noncats did with their mouths. There was a lot of mushing and smacking.

“You wanna tell me how you ended up with Izzy’s kitten at your house?” asked Suzy, stroking her fingers over Gwyn’s braids.

I stared at Gwyn from the windowsill, every inch tense except for the very tip of my tail. I could not keep it from shivering. Was she going to spoil my secret? Would she tell my mummies that I was no longer the kitten they loved, but a cursed mutation?

Gwyn gave Suzy a squeeze and released her. “Think you guys left a window open. He just came mewling on my doorstep.”

“Sorry about that,” Suzy said.

“It was no trouble at all.” Gwyn’s warm eyes seemed to sparkle. “Y’all can drop him off with me any time you’ve gotta travel. He’s a good boy. Aunt Gwyneth will always be happy to keep him.”

I was already purring when Suzy scooped me into her arms. I bumped my head against the underside of her chin, rubbing my smell all over her, since she reeked of distant places. I had missed her. I think she missed me too because she nuzzled me back while Gwyn was watching, and she never nuzzled me when people could see.

“Let’s go home, Mr. Poe,” said Suzy. Her wings arched over us, sheltering us from the breeze and golden pseudo-sun as we stepped out into another perfect day.

* * *

COLLAPSE