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It is morning, and Raff has left without suspecting that anything is amiss. I am sitting on the verandah, taking in the fresh air and the vista of the garden, and wishing that I was a smoker so I could have something to calm me and keep my fingers busy. I have an oversized cup of coffee, but that's not exactly calming. I don't function well on just a couple of hours of sleep.
Argyle is sitting on the other chair. He has been silent all morning, ever since Raff woke up.
'Have you given up talking?' I ask wryly.
'I thought you might like some time to think,' he replies.
'Afraid that Raff might hear you?' I ask, perhaps with a hint of bitterness.
'I don't think he can hear me. I'm not sure how it all works. I think you only hear me because I want you to. If the circumstances are right Raff may pick up some vague echoes - I really don't know.'
'How can you not know?'
'I'm a cat, not a physicist.'
'Oh, come on. Now you're just being all mysterious and annoying!'
Argyle smirks. 'What part of 'I'm a cat' did you not understand?'
I mutter something derogatory into my cup of coffee. I didn't ask to have a talking cat, and even if I had, I wouldn't have requested a sarcastic smart-arsed one. I didn't ask to be a 'rare' person who represents an eternal gate between universes either. And I certainly don't remember signing up to be a Vile victim. All I want is to continue studying, obsess about my almost sort-of maybe boyfriend, and watch the occasional episode of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' without experiencing deja-vu.
'Well, some of us have work to do,' I tell Argyle as I get up.
'And some of us have warm sunbeams to lie in,' he smugly replies.
'Laugh while you can. It's not that far from here to the cat haven, you know.' I murmur.
'At least I'd be more likely to get some decent food there,' he retorts. He slides gracefully off the chair and follows me into the house. 'Speaking of which, I think today feels like a good day for tuna. Not, I should add, like cheap gelatin infused with tiny wisps of waste tuna, but solid, honest, only slightly more expensive canned tuna. I think you get my meaning, or…'
Argyle collides with my leg mid-sentence, and has to peer around it to see what caused me to stop so suddenly.
Standing in the centre of the kitchen is a creature about the size of a small deer, but with a flatter, almost human face, and long tufted ears. It looks stunned and unsteady, and even as we watch, it twists its head around then slams it sideways into one of the cupboards. It pauses, then repeats the action. Dark red blood dribbles from its nostrils and mouth, and trickles out of its ears, and seeps slowly from its eyes.
'Argyle, what is that?' I whisper.
Argyle gazes sadly at the creature as it beats its head against the cupboard. He winces at the sickening thud sound it makes. 'I'd say that was a ffyfwn. There's one of them in most humans.'
'What's it doing to itself?' I take a step toward it. 'Help me make it stop!'
'You can't help it,' Argyle says. 'It's too far gone.'
'Too far gone? What're you talking about?'
'I'm talking about the Vile!' he snaps impatiently. 'He obviously went from here to the ffyfwn's plane, and this is what he's doing to them!'
'But what's wrong with it?' I cry helplessly. 'We must be able to do something?'
'Don't you think they've been trying to undo Vile work since before the dawn of time?' hisses Argyle angrily. 'There's nothing we can do!'
I turn back to the deer-like creature, and crouch down in front of it. It doesn't seem to see me. Its brown eyes are dull, and speckled with droplets of blood. I try to reach out and touch it, but it fades and vanishes.
All that remains is the blood, pooled and sticky on the linoleum, and smeared on the cupboard.
'I still don't understand,' I protest, weakly, to Argyle. 'What did the Vile do to it?'
'As I said, what Viles do to other beings can't really be expressed in language, and it doesn't have an analogy on the physical plane. The blood and the trauma you saw, they were a sort of metaphor. Ffyfwns are usually joyous, frisky spirits - after a Vile attack, they look something like what we just saw.'
Something suddenly occurs to me. 'You said that there's one of these things in most people. What happens to a person if their ffyfwn is hurt like this?'
Argyle sighs again, in that way that suggests that too much responsibility has been placed on his simple feline shoulders. 'Nothing measurable. I sudden sense of ennui, a slight tilting of personality, a fading of the sense of humour, a lowered resistance to disease. People may notice the change but they won't be able to work out why. They'll just put it down to stress or mid-life crisis and adjust to it. They'll have to - they'll be like that for the rest of their lives.'
He pauses, and glances up at me. 'But right now we have more serious concerns.'
I start out of my thoughts. 'We do?'
Argyle's yellow eyes narrow, and he's back to being his usual depreciatory self. 'You started seeing creatures from the other planes the day before the Vile arrived, and they stopped on the night of the murder. Any guesses?'
It's as if the temperature of the room suddenly drops. 'The Vile is coming.'
'So you have been paying attention. You may actually get out of this alive,' Argyle snorts. 'Now listen carefully. There is one way, and one way only, to stay alive if a Vile is stalking you on the physical plane.'
Argyle fixes me with a grim stare. 'You must never, ever sleep alone.'
I didn't see that coming. 'Sorry?'
He rolls his eyes. 'It's not difficult. You must never sleep alone. That Raff person seems to spend half his life here; just make sure he starts spending the other half here as well.'
'Can Raff really protect me from the Vile?'
'Well no, not in any physical way. But Viles have a pathological fear of being witnessed. No matter how much he wants you, he won't enter your room if there's a risk that Raff will see him.'
'Are you sure about this?' I ask dubiously. 'Why would the Vile care if he's seen?'
'Actually,' Argyle admits, 'nobody's quite sure why. But we do know that no human has ever witnessed a Vile murder, and all Vile victims are attacked, at night, when they're alone. You do the math.'
I find myself squirming. 'Well, you know, I'm not sure what Raff would say if I asked him to stay every night. He might think I was getting possessive. Hey, what about you? Can't I just get you to sleep with me? Or Mondo? He'd love to sleep inside.'
Argyle shakes his head vigorously. 'No, no, it has to be a human. Animals don't count. It's probably because we don't have spiritual components.'
I stare at him. 'Cats don't have souls?'
'No. We're totally mono-dimensional. What you see is what you get.'
'But… but that's terrible. You mean that when you die, you just cease to exist?'
'Please. It's bad enough that you feed me low-grade meat, force me to live with that blundering oaf of a dog and never worm me on time. Don't anthropomorphise me as well.'
'Hey, you're the one who suddenly decided to start talking.'
'This is different; an aberration from the normal order of things. With the exception of me, all animals - cats, dogs, horses, spiders, monkeys, whales, cockroaches, germs - live out their lives in the peaceful single-minded pursuit of food, mating and survival. We're products and prisoners of the physical plane. You, and Raff, and all the other humans, are unique in all the fields of reality because you exist on several dozen planes at once. And good for you, I say. Don't imagine I begrudge you any of it. Present circumstances excepted, it's a nice simple life, being a cat.'
'I still think it's sad,' I insist.
'No, 'sad' would be you falling victim to a Vile and sentencing countless millions of beings to agonising violation because you're too nervous to ask some guy to stay with you.'
'You're not making this any easier.' I tell him.
'Well excuse me for making you not dying one of my priorities,' Argyle mutters. 'And now, if you don't mind, I'm going to go and sit by my food bowl in the hope that something tuna-like will appear there. If you've any sense, you'll call Raff and make sure he's here by sundown.'
Something inside me refuses to let this weird crisis destroy my life any further than it has already. Maybe it's one or two of my spirits getting testy. In any case, after I give Argyle some tinned tuna I found in the pantry, which elicits a great deal of smug purring, I sit down at my computer and spend an hour or two writing up some results for my project. It's a task I've been avoiding for some time, and, ironically, it gives me an excuse not to phone Raff right away. I don't know what to say to him.
I'm not ready to have Raff move in with me. I'm pretty sure he's not ready for it either. I don't feel comfortable claiming him as my boyfriend, and he's never introduced me as his girlfriend. The whole sleeping together thing is just an accident of modern morality. I have no idea of whether it means something to him, and if it does, exactly what that meaning is. I wish I lived a hundred years ago when sex was more of a well-defined social contract. I'd be classed as a wanton jezebel, but at least I'd know where I was.
When I can't put it off any longer, I call Raff's place. I really don't know what to say; I decide that I'll just take it one day at a time. Or rather one night at a time. Maybe the Vile will lose interest in me after a couple of weeks. Maybe he'll get hit by a speeding drunk driver as he slinks across the road. Maybe Raff has been secretly hoping that I'll ask him to move in… his dog is already here, after all.
But all I get is the wavering answering machine. Raff is not at home.
I try to remember the name of the workshop where he hammers away at his projects, but I'm not even sure if it has a name, much less if they have a phone there. Raff hates mobile phones and pagers, and refuses to get either. I call the store where he sometimes works, but he's not there. Eventually in desperation I call Martin at work, but he hasn't spoken to Raff since we were all at the pub. I tell him that I just need to speak to Raff urgently, but to my ears I sound all possessive and clingy.
'What do you mean you can't find him?' Argyle demands.
'I've called everywhere I can think of,' I reply. 'Sometimes Raff can just be a hard person to track down. Unlike cats we humans can't track each other by scent.'
'Don't get saucy with me,' Argyle chides. 'We'll just have to come up with an alternative. Is there anyone else you could sleep with?'
I stare at him. 'What are you suggesting? That I just invite some random guy to spend the night?'
'To be blunt, yes. Did I mention that your life is at stake here?' he replies coolly.
'I am not having sex with a guy I don't even know!' I say indignantly.
'Oh please, you humans do it all the time. Anyway, he doesn't have to have sex with you; he just has to be here.'
I have to smile despite myself. 'I don't think any guy would want to sleep here without it.'
'Well, it's only for one night, until you can find Raff. That's not so bad, is it?'
'Argyle, no!' I snap. 'If I have to I'll just, well, stay up all night with a thermos of coffee, pepper spray and a baseball bat.'
Argyle gives me a dark look. 'There's no need for that. If you do insist on being difficult, I'll keep watch as you sleep. If there's anything amiss I can wake you up and you can barricade yourself in the laundry until help arrives.' He pauses for a moment. 'On second thoughts, you might like to keep that pepper spray close at hand after all.'
'You'll be able to stay up all night?' I ask him.
'Of course,' he responds. 'I am nocturnal, you know.'
Just in case, I call Raff again as the sun sets. I get the machine.
The evening passes uneventfully. I watch TV, and discover that when you're being stalked by an interdimensional demon intent on gutting you like a salmon, reality television suddenly becomes a lot less riveting.
I go to bed near midnight. Argyle takes up his position on the dressing table and assumes a particularly feline look of serene watchfulness. I'm not sure if I'll be able to sleep. However I seem to drift off very quickly. It must have something to do with spending most of the previous night awake, listening to my cat telling me about the nature of the universe.
I have no idea why I wake up, but the first thing I see is Argyle staring intently out the window. I hold my breath and listen carefully. There's a tiny sound, the movement of stunted feet through the long dewy grass. Then I hear the strange, perverted, lulling song of the Minions, drifting like a poisonous gas on the night breeze.
Argyle doesn't move a muscle. 'Get down on the floor,' he whispers. 'Stay low.'
I slide out of the bed and lie under the window. Argyle slinks down from the dressing table and lies flat on the stool.
We both watch as stumpy white fingers scrape across the window pane. I can tell that it's staring in, seeing the rumpled but empty bed and the quiet room. It must look deserted. But I remember the feeling I got the other night, when I felt that it could sense me even when it couldn't see me. Goosebumps prickle up my legs and arms. Argyle makes that noise that cats make when they're very angry or afraid, a soft low growl deep in the back of the throat.
The Minion's fingers reach up and test the latch on the window.
Just as the latch is beginning to turn Argyle launches himself onto the window sill, spitting and hissing, with his fur bristled on his high-arched back, and with one set of claws slashing at the glass. The hand whips away from the window with a startled cry, and I hear a fast shuffling through the grass away from the house. The cat hisses at the creature's back until the sound has faded, then drops down next to me on the floor.
'With any luck,' he says calmly, 'it will think that this house is empty except for a neurotic cat.'
'Thanks, Argyle,' I whisper. 'That was very brave of you.'
He shrugs. 'It had to be done. If I start to feel like a hero I'll just remind myself that someone else is going to die tonight. I'm sure this suburb is full of people sleeping on their own. The Vile searches for you, but he will make do with an ordinary human for now.'
I feel so helpless cowering on my bedroom floor while some other person is about to be murdered. 'Can't we do anything? Call the police?'
But Argyle's ears have suddenly pricked up. 'What was that?'
I hold my breath again. This time there's no song, but I can hear the footsteps in the grass. It sounds like there's more than one set. Then out of the corner of my eye I see a vague, triangular patch of silvery light on the bedroom wall, opposite the window. It drifts like a ghost across the wardrobe door.
Argyle leaps onto the window sill again, a picture of feline fury. The silvery light shivers, then the window shatters inwards and I catch a glimpse of pale flesh and metallic claws as something grabs Argyle and drags him outside.
The cat's vicious hissing is suddenly hysterical screaming. A second or two later there is a shriek of pain and Argyle shoots back into the room, leaving a few tufts of fur and a few tiny drops of blood to rain down on me. Above me the shards of glass are knocked out of the broken pane, and there's a loud crack as something slams into the other window. More glass shards fall on me.
Then, like guardian angels come to rescue me, two bright, white lights flash across the ceiling. With a moan of frustration, the silvery light vanishes.
My head is momentarily full of angels, but I hear the rumble of a V8 engine and the thud-thud-thud of techno music. It's not angels, unless angels have taken to driving black Ford Falcons with rear spoilers. It's the people over the street. The engine and the music stops, and I hear giggling and drunken people loudly telling each other to stop making so much noise. Someone quietly retches in the gutter and two others begin one of those pseudo-profound conversations that only drunks can understand. Someone else can't find the keys to his Honda, and complains pathetically about it.
Argyle limps over to the window and stands on his hind legs to peer over the sill. 'We should be safe now. It'll take them half an hour just to find the front door, and the Vile won't risk witnesses. What's the time?'
I look at the clock. 'Just before four.'
'It'll be light in less than an hour.' He slumps back down to the floor, and looks at me disconsolately. 'Oh shit, what have I done?'
'What is it?' I ask.
'Shit shit shit shit shit,' Argyle moans.
Nothing's quite so unsettling as hearing your cat use bad language.
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