As she did every Tuesday, Delia stopped by the Place O’Pets to pick up supplies. She bustled in, studiously avoiding Captain Pete, the one handed aquarium specialist. She made her way past displays full of flea collars, chew toys and lizard dentures, to the food section. There she filled her trolley and took it directly to the counter.
At the till stood the imposing figure of Zorbar, husband of Carol from the coffee shop and semi-domesticated ape-man. He scratched at his lime green Place O’Pets polo shirt as if he wanted to tear it apart.
“Zorbar have question Miss Crispin,” he said. “You buy dog food. Zorbar smell dog. You buy cat food. Zorbar no smell cat. Why that?”
Delia’s eyebrows shot up towards her severe hairline. “You can smell the pets of individual customers on them? Even in the middle of a petshop?”
Zorbar’s scarred brow crinkled. “Miss Crispin cannot?”
“Oh, Zorbar!” Delia chuckled. “My cat is a very rare breed.”
“Ah. Anyway, Zorbar visiting prison tomorrow,” Zorbar said. “See Laura. See others. If message…”
Delia shook her head and Zorbar’s face fell. Delia waved and headed back out of the shop. “Captain Pete,” she said icily on her way out.
“Delia,” Pete said with just as much frost.
She loaded the dog food in her car. Carrying the cat food, she made her way to a little alley between Carpets! Carpets! Carpets and the Perforated Eardrum Hi-Fi. She peeled the lid off a can of cat food, placed it on the ground and took a step backwards.
A little later, something came out of a crevice in the wall. It looked a little like a cat. A little. It had four legs, a tail and a head with triangular ears. There the resemblance ended. The creature was a solid lemon-yellow colour, with a thick round body. Its eyes were enormous, perhaps a quarter of the size of its round head, and half closed in a disdainful squint. It walked up to the food on all fours, then it stood on its hind legs and picked up the can with its front paws. It opened its mouth unfathomably wide, and tipped the contents of the can right in.
“Well good afternoon,” Delia said.
“It is now,” said the thing that might have been a cat, before licking the inside of the can.
“Zorbar was wondering why he couldn’t smell cat on me,” Delia said.
“Yeah, well, I don’t do laps, lady,” the cat said. It extended one of the claws on its right paw and began picking its teeth.
Delia gave her brittlest smile. “So do you have something for me? Or are you just going to spit out catchphrases that stopped being funny years ago?”
The cat sighed. “I dislike Tuesdays — and quite deeply, at that,” he muttered. “Okay, I managed to sneak into the meeting at the kebab shop. It was pretty low key. I think they’re trying to recruit some new people, so they toned down the invocations of elder gods and so on.”
“New people? Such as?”
“Rick from the sports shop. Gloria from the hobby store. Oh, and Alfred.”
A pang of pain struck Delia in her perfectly organised heart. Alfred. He wasn’t there yet but he had potential. And he was sweet in his unfocused way… Too unfocused at the moment but perhaps…
“Internal monologues on your own time, lady,” the cat said.
Delia glared at the creature, which at least had the decency to look embarrassed.
“What do you think the chances are we could get one of our people in there?”
The cat rolled its enormous eyes. “Your people. I just work here. But yeah, I know what you mean. You won’t get any of the Handy Pavilion people into those secret meetings, no way. Stavros is picking his marks well. On the edge of your little resistance operation… slightly dithery… A little slow, no offence to your cardigan-clad would-be beau. Stavros won’t go for someone committed like you or Carol or even that creepy guy from the bodybuilding supplements shop.”
Delia pursed her lips. Much as she hated to admit it, the cat had a point. Anyone who was loyal enough to be trusted as an informant probably wouldn’t get through the door of the kebab shop.
“I’ll have to ask a friend.”
“You mean Jasu Shan, who’s hiding in a secret basement to your store?” the cat smirked.
“Yes, McKinley,” Delia said, raising an eyebrow. “I know that you know. You’ll have to try harder than that to shock me.”
McKinley the cat glared at her and put its paw on what would have been its hip, if its body hadn’t been a boneless, ovoid shape. For the hundredth time, Delia wondered at the thing’s anatomy. It seemed to be male, and yet it had no trace of visible external genitalia, and even though it was constantly eating, it seemed not to have an anus.
“Okay, I have stuff to do,” McKinley said, turning to leave. “Cat stuff. You wouldn’t get it.”
“Yeah, hang in there,” Delia said.
The cat looked back once, did a double take, then vanished around a corner with a look of pure contempt.
Delia walked back towards Storage World. A dread was going in her heart. She was still not sure what Stavros Theopoulos was up to. Was he working for the Pyramid, or did he have some other agenda? But there would be no way to get a double agent into his group.
The only chance would be to turn someone who was already there.
And that, like it or not, meant talking to Alfred. Which in turn meant manipulating Alfred. Delia didn’t like the idea, but Alfred was so besotted with her that anything she asked him to do would necessarily be tainted by that. She might go to him as a friend and a colleague, but there was little chance he’d see it in those terms.
There was one other option. She could get someone else to recruit him. Who was the person least likely to make Alfred’s heart race.
Across the carpark, the door to the disposals store opened, and Delia smiled as she saw her answer.