The Gift of the Moggy
by The Hag
(For Calico and Rebecca, who so graciously allowed their pawmaid time off to edit.)
On Maundy Thursday at half past ten Moggy-Next-Door was sitting hopefully outside Doyle's back door with Tiny Teddy, calling for bacon.
"You'd better push off. We're both in the doghouse," Bodie told her resignedly when he opened the door. "Thinks he's coming down with bubonic plague. Keeps taking his temperature and gargling with Dettol and feeling if he's still got a pulse. Give him time to get over it, eh?"
"And you can piss off an' all!" Doyle snarled from the kitchen. "Go and have a good laugh with one of your bloody air hostesses!"
He threw Bodie's jacket at his head and stormed back upstairs to the bathroom.
"See?" Bodie rubbed the back of his skull ruefully where the R/T tucked in the pocket had made its presence known and shrugged into the jacket. "Mucked up our day off good and proper, didn't you? No, you don't, princess!" One agile foot neatly frustrated Moggy-Next-Door's attempt to whiz past him into the kitchen. "Discretion is definitely the better part of valour when he's in that mood." He shut the door behind him. "You go and teach those kittens unarmed combat or something." He stooped and tickled her white chin and whispered, "It's a good thing you waited till after, or you'd be on your way back over the fence by boot propulsion." He prodded the miniature teddy bear with his toe. "And take that with you or the brat'll be bawling his head off all day." He raised his voice towards the faint sounds of gargling. "Air hostess, he says. I know just the one."
He loitered a moment until the bathroom window slammed shut, then proceeded on his way, smiling to himself.
Philosophically Moggy picked up Tiny Teddy and returned to her maternal duties.
"What's Marge shoutin' the odds about?" Alf peered warily up the stairs.
"That Collum Reilly," Herbie told him. "She's just found her diamond bracelet with the ruby hearts has gone missing."
"Blimey, the antique one from her granny? And she reckons Collum nicked it?"
"Never did trust him," Herbie said gloomily. "Oh, and that ain't all--she saw a mouse."
"Knew it would happen with poor old Tiddles pushin' up the hollyhocks."
"Can't stand them, can she? About the only thing I know that makes her go all--well--you know--"
"Hysterical," Alf supplied succinctly.
Marge had got over her hysterics when she swept into the room a few moments later, but mice were very much on her mind.
"We need another cat," she announced briskly. "I'll see to it. You two can just go and set some traps. None of that poison--they die under the floorboards and stink for days. And I want a word with Ray Doyle about this Easter business at the post office--I'm not having that. I'm expecting a parcel. I don't want it blown up."
"I'll get on to him."
She considered. "Do we know where he lives? All right, then, we'll pop round tomorrow and see if he's in." He wouldn't be able to retreat so easily from his own house. "I'm off to the hairdresser. You do the traps and then get looking for Collum. "
Herbie concealed a shudder of purely masculine sympathy at the glint in her eye and absentmindedly cupped a protective hand over his crotch.
"Funny, that Doyle bloke," Alf mused. "Bit like a crafty old mouse, isn't he? Marge keeps trying to nab him with nice little bits of information, and he always nips off with the bait."
"She's going to follow him into the mousehole this time," Herbie observed gloomily. "This Easter thing's big. Probably get a contract signed in blood. All we need, a perishin' live-in copper."
"Wonder if he knows how to catch mice?" Alf said. "Replace Collum and Tiddles all at one go. I'd better phone his boss--don't want Marge disappointed, do we?"
The air hostess was Becky Walters. Her long ash-blonde hair was neatly confined in a single plait. Her nails were rimmed with earth. Her svelte figure was concealed by a baggy old jersey and stained loose-fitting jeans. Her face, devoid of makeup, lighted in a smile at the sight of him.
"Bodie, me old mucker, come to take me away from all this?"
"Take you as far as McDonald's. I'm famished--got chucked out before breakfast."
"I bet it served you right. You planning on growing your own apology flowers these days? Need a steady supply, do you?"
"Well..." Bodie gazed vaguely around the garden centre. "He likes growing stuff. I thought..."
"Garden or windowsill?"
"Garden...but they're shifting him again any minute. One reason he's a bit stroppy--gets fond of his gardens and..."
"Windowsill then. What are you spending?"
Bodie eyed her suspiciously. "What are you flogging?"
"A dozen roses usually goes down well."
"He doesn't much fancy them. Goes on about how would I like my privates cut off and stuck in a vase. Remember him buying roses for a girl once. She nearly did that to him, too. Drooped around for weeks."
"We don't sell cut flowers, do we? Come over here a minute. Look. Think he'd fancy them? New strain. Indoors or out. Joy and I have been trying them at home this winter--they're fantastic. Nice change from African violets and Busy Lizzie and begonias."
"Miniature roses." Bodie nodded thoughtfully.
"And if it's really bad light where they move him you can give him one of our plant light stands for a housewarming pressie."
"He'll make me pay for the electricity. All right. Elevenses?"
She shook her head regretfully. "When Joy's back from the deliveries we'll have a quick lunch, then our afternoon bloke comes in and I've got to get tarted up for the five o'clock to Chicago. Takes me an hour just to get my hands fit to be seen. Joy keeps on at me to wear gloves but I like to get on with the seedlings between customers."
"Not doing well enough to jack in the hostessing, then?"
"Oh, it's not bad, but we're not quite over the hump yet. Easter should be a big help, then--is that you?"
"Pardon me." Bodie pulled the chirping R/T out of his pocket. "Bodie--Yes, sir-- today? It's my--" He made a face of resigned disgust. "Speeding all the way, sir." He thrust the R/T back. "First day off in three weeks."
"Get Joy to deliver the roses this afternoon, shall I?" Becky suggested. "A dozen assorted colours or all red?"
Bodie considered Doyle's probable preference versus traditional sentiment. "Better make it assorted." He scribbled Doyle's address and handed it over with his Access card. "Leave 'em with Mrs O'Hara at number thirty-six if he's not there. If they're calling me in his day off's probably up the spout too. We'll have a drink sometime soon, eh?"
"Perhaps we can make it a foursome," Becky suggested as she returned the card. "A beard can come in handy, you know."
As he hurried out to the Capri a couple of minutes later he puzzled briefly over her parting remark. He peered at his reflection in the side mirror. "Save shaving," he muttered aloud and forgot about it.
"Ah, Doyle." Cowley frowned up from the papers he was working on. "Nice of you to join us. I trust you have recovered?"
"Sorry. Bit of an upset--"
"Yes, yes." Cowley pushed a folder towards him. "We have information that a commemoration of the Easter Rising is in the works, and not in Dublin. Get yourself caught up on this lot. I've sent Bodie to check out the Belfast connections and I want you to coordinate the local investigation."
"You've heard of Belfast, Doyle," Cowley snapped. "He's instructed to return on Saturday if he's failed, in which case we'll need all our resources here."
"He was supposed to be--"
"Playing cricket," Cowley agreed impatiently. "I'll let the Colonel know. Well, don't just stand there like a spare dinner, man--get on with it!"
Doyle rounded up a team and started to put the word out to contacts. Belfast. One of Bodie's nightmare places. Trying to keep the peace. Perilous place. Old enemies. Old betrayals. Poking about among the madmen, the murderers.
Never learn, do you? he excoriated himself. Now that the queasiness had passed, he couldn't blame Bodie for cackling like a demented hyena. He'd have done the same, and Bodie wouldn't have thrown him out in a temper. Never bloody learn.
Be safe be safe be safe...
"Want a bite of my hot cross bun, Mr Doyle?" Tricia O'Hara's grubby little fingers offered the rather squashed treat when Doyle returned home late Thursday afternoon for an hour's rest and refreshment before continuing the quest among the early evening risers.
"No thanks, love. On a diet. Here, it's not even Friday yet!"
"Mum's on a diet today." Tricia offered the bun to Moggy, who sniffed carefully and declined after a couple of exploratory licks. "Only it's her mouth really, where Uncle Collum smacked her. We get chocolate eggs on Sunday."
"Uncle Collum what?" Doyle bristled.
"She says it was the door but I know it was Uncle Collum. He was shouting. Can you put him in prison?"
"Has your mum seen the regular police about it?"
"She says he was just a bit upset. He threw his boot at Moggy. He's rude." Her voice lowered confidentially. "He said the kittens were a bunch of fuckin' parasites that wanted drowning. We've put them in Mum's room to be safe. Moggy goes in and out the window when she wants, down the shed roof."
"Where's your dad, then?"
"Got the oil rig job -- he's not coming home till next week.."
"And who's Uncle Collum? Dad's brother?"
"Mum's." Tricia chewed off a mouthful of slightly used bun. "You've got to be nice to your brother, Mum says, but I won't let Charlie hit me when he's big enough. There's three kittens, you know. One white and two stripy. They fight all the time, don't they, Mog? Do you want a kitten, Mr Doyle?"
"Afraid not, love. Got to move soon and I don't know if they'll allow cats. What's Uncle Collum's last name, then?"
"Reilly." There was a wail of infantile distress from the O'Hara house. Tricia glanced round with an experienced eye. "You pinched Tiny Teddy again," she accused Moggy and retrieved the toy from under the hedge. "She was practicing kittens on him and now she still won't let Charlie keep him. The kittens all chew him."
"No," Tricia said scornfully, "Tiny Teddy. The kittens tore his tummy open and Uncle Collum sewed him back up last night, but I still don't like him." She pointed to a row of clumsy but sturdy stitches. "He smells like pubs. He kicks things. I'll give Teddy back to Charlie and shut him up. There's hundreds of tiny roses came. We put them round the back for you. Can I have one?"
"I expect so, love." Roses? That great big softie! Doyle's heart twitched with remorse.
"The pink ones are nice. C'mon, Mog. You carry Teddy."
Doyle tried not to think about the sanitary implications of Tiny Teddy's peripatetic existence. He went round to the back and stood tenderly contemplating the twelve little pots neatly arrayed on the patio. Be safe... He made a mental note to check on the situation with Maureen O'Hara and her brother as he resolutely went inside and shut the door to begin his preparations for the evening's lonely slog.
Collum lurched home at four o'clock on Good Friday morning, waking the house and the neighbours. Moggy decided it would be prudent to move the kittens. She'd nip them along to stay with Rrrraaaayyy and the Other One for a few days. They must have forgotten yesterday's misunderstanding by now.
She plucked the first kitten from the basket and popped out of the window, down the shed roof and over the fence.
She tried asking at the back door first. He often opened it when she called his name with that plaintive little upward inflection: "Doy--oy--oy? Doy--oy--oy?"
Wonderful names he had. Names you could say, like the first part of Maureen. One was as close as you could get to the classic war cry: Doy-yoy-yoy-yoy-yoy-yoy-lllllllllle.
And Rrrraaaayyy. You could purr it. You could wail it when you needed to go out in a hurry or fancied a snack. He was good about snacks. Sardines. Bits of cheese. Nibbles of melon. Even a radish once, but that was a bit too pungent and she had batted it safely under the cooker.
Receiving no answer to her summons, she scouted around and ascertained that the water room's tiny window was a few inches open. That was her usual portal when the door was unresponsive. It was a bit tricky with a mouthful of kitten, but after a couple of tries she managed, though she almost dropped the kitten into the empty floor pond.
She moved cautiously through the open door into the little hallway. Her pricked ears detected the sound of Rrrraaaayyy's solitary slumber from the sleeping den. She thought of her secret hideout behind the suitcases on top of the wardrobe, but that might be a bit risky. The open laundry hamper seemed the best bet to be going on with.
She settled the kitten and went for a quick look round. The mice were doing well. She would be able to get the kittens properly started while they were here. She sniffed at the ghost of fried bacon which Maureen never allowed her, and remembered the delights of being felida grata.
Rrrraaaayyy liked gritty morning food with no proper taste, but he was generous about sharing the milk he poured on it. He was territorial about the bottle, though, so she respected his feelings and never drank out of it when he was looking.
The Other One often fried bacon or sausages the mornings he was there, but he had doglike defensive instincts about food. When Moggy-Next-Door couldn't coax him into the proper tribute or annex it for herself Rrrraaaayyy would usually help.
Moggy appreciated that and adopted him as an honorary kitten while she waited for the real ones to be ready for training. She was fond of Tiny Teddy, but he wasn't much good except to practice grooming.
Give a kitten a mouse and it will eat for a day. Teach a kitten to mouse...
She had started Rrrraaaayyy off with dead ones a few weeks ago to get him used to the idea of prey, but he just tossed them into the big drinking bowl. A dull game and far too short. Any reasonable kitten could have had hours of entertainment. Rrrraaaayyy didn't even practice fishing before he operated the little waterfall.
Perhaps he found the dead ones lacking in challenge. He liked challenge.
There was that thing with wheels he worked on for hours that sometimes rewarded him with a hideous roaring splutter. She often assisted by rearranging the smaller tools and the assortment of bits he took off it.
Then there were pieces of lovely coarse fabric stretched taut on wooden frames. She wasn't supposed to clean her claws on them when they rested against the wall. He would set one up on the three-legged contraption when the Other One was away and dab at it with soft-ended sticks dipped in repulsive-smelling blobs. "Think it looks like him?" he had asked a couple of times, showing her a stiff, shiny paper he kept close by.
Moggy wasn't good at two dimensions but she had sniffed at it politely. She gathered it had something to do with the Other One. Rrrraaaayyy worked on him as well, and he made all kinds of interesting noises that seemed to please Rrrraaaayyy even more than the racket he got out of the wheeled thing.
The Other One could sometimes be cajoled into rendering her boneless with those big strong forepaws. He removed Rrrraaaayyy's bones too, stroking and thoroughly grooming him. Moggy could never persuade him to give her a wash.
Her secret den behind the suitcases was equipped with a little gap through which she often admired Rrrraaaayyy's catlike limberness. He could almost certainly have attended to the hygiene of his own most personal parts, but he and the Other One seemed to prefer a reciprocal arrangement.
Reaction to the first pre-deceased mouse had been promising. Rrrraaaayyy chased it round the kitchen, but the Other One opened the back door and they lost interest as soon as it reached the garden. Any reasonable kitten...
She had diligently stocked the house but Rrrraaaayyy was very slow to catch on. He perceived only the chewed and nibbled drawbacks of this rich learning environment. He kept urging her to catch them. If he just once got his teeth into a warm, wriggling mouse, she was sure all his proper instincts would function.
Yesterday, taking a break from the kittens, she had retrieved a mouse from the game preserve and taken it up to the sleeping den. An error in judgement, it turned out.
The den had been redolent of the muskiness of human toms rutting, and the wetness that popped up on their skin, and the faint nothing-scent of the stuff in the blue and white tube. She had tried it once when the cap had been off--not as good as the minty foam people ate from the little mouth sticks but better than the bubble-lumps they rubbed on themselves under the big waterfall and in the floor and wall ponds. The Other One had something for his face when he scraped the fur off, but she hadn't had a chance to try it yet. Rrrraaaayyy preferred the mysterious box that gave forth a menacing buzz: she slapped that when she could reach it just to discourage it from getting any ideas.
They had been playing one of their strenuous games. Rrrraaaayyy had wrapped his hind legs round the Other One's neck and was crooning what might almost have been real language. She preferred her kittens to face the world with full armoury, but at times like this it was just as well he kept his front claws trimmed short, the way he dug them into the Other One's powerful shoulders.
The Other One had been moving fast and hard, and when he added his own dissonant descant to Rrrraaaayyy's eloquent love-song she knew they had achieved their goal. Her interested observations had revealed a deficiency of the prickly spines with which her own gentleman friends were equipped. Even so, they seemed to enjoy it. Once she'd thought Rrrraaaayyy had finally grown some, but it had just been a kind of extra skin he'd thrown away afterwards. The Other One had yowled quite a lot and she hadn't seen anything like it again.
They had disentangled, and when she heard the mingled harsh breathing and affectionate murmuring she understood in context as their version of a shared purr she had jumped up lightly onto Rrrraaaayyy's pillow, mouse at the ready.
Rrrraaaayyy, eyes shut, had been luxuriating in a stretch and a yawn.
A wide yawn, full of good sharp mouse-vertebrae-snapping teeth.
A more challenging target than the big drinking bowl.
She shouldn't have rushed him. After the first outraged yowl he'd gone skittering off to the water room making furball noises. The Other One had rolled on the bed, clutching his belly and uttering the raucous clamour that betokened extreme enjoyment but usually led to trouble if only one of them was doing it. She'd lost track of the mouse in the confusion.
She'd decided to come back for her bacon a bit later. Perhaps she would take it home: time the kittens learned about real food instead of that dreary tinned and dry stuff Maureen kept handing out. She'd collect a mouse for them at the same time: somebody was going to learn to hunt or she'd know the reason why.
At eight on Good Friday morning the alarm jolted Doyle out of his few hours of restless sleep back into the tangle of anxiety and loneliness. And hunger: he didn't remember eating anything last night after returning from the depressing round of grasses and lowlife. He'd coaxed and bullied and menaced a few into promises of cooperation, but he wasn't optimistic. Might have to start breaking arms today.
Cowley thought at least one of the major post offices would be targeted, and high security measures were being set up all over the country.
Sleepily he retrieved yesterday's underwear from the floor and staggered to the bathroom, tossing it into the hamper as he headed for the shower. He thought of muesli and grimaced: it was one of the rare mornings he'd have pinched a sausage or a rasher from Bodie...
Be safe be safe be safe....
The laundry hamper heaved and boiled with three indignant kittens scrabbling free of his underwear, and Tiny Teddy, who had sprung a new leak, riding the storm. Doyle eyed them helplessly and left them to sort it out.
He took his muesli and a cup of coffee out to the patio and sat on the step, looking at the garden he would soon lose, at the miniature rose garden to replace it. He thought of the box concealed in the wardrobe which contained the brand new cricket outfit he'd secretly bought to replace Bodie's rather ancient gear, a surprise for Saturday. Wearing white for Eastertide, Bodie had quoted when Doyle had pointed out next door's cherry all glorious. Some days he leaked Housman the way Tiny Teddy leaked stuffing, but it was better than Keats and had given him the idea.
He thought of rose bushes planted on graves. Full of graves, Housman. Gods might get up out of them but people didn't.
Moggy materialised and he set down the bowl with its puddle of milk for her. "All your sodding fault, isn't it?" He took comfort in the silky white fur beneath his fingers. Bodie's skin was so fine textured, so pale....
"We should tell the Cow, Ray. It's half our bloody lives! We can always go and work for Ojuka if he kicks us out."
No shortage of offers. And did he really want to be CI5's next Controller, as Cowley had been hinting?
Telling the Cow. There'd be no going back. Telling the world, too, or they'd be sneaking round forever. Could they survive a future rife with jokes and sneers and sidelong glances? Like rats in a cage...
Safe please safe....
"Hullo?" A feminine voice was calling from the front. "Mr Doyle?"
"Round the side." He stood up to assess the attractive thirty-ish brunette clad in neat corduroy slacks and a dark blue jumper whose colour would have suited Bodie.
"We haven't met." She offered her hand. "I'm Joy Lang, Becky Walters' partner. I just popped in to be sure you got the roses safely. Bodie used to go out with Becky, you know?"
"Oh." Doyle collected his wits. "The air hostess. He told me. I'm Ray. Been meaning to go round and look at your garden centre. Fancy a coffee? I'll get you a chair unless you want to come in."
"I'm fine." She took his erstwhile seat on the step. "I'd love coffee, thanks. Black, no sugar." She let Moggy sniff her fingers and began an expert petting session while Doyle fetched two fresh mugs. "Got kittens, hasn't she?"
"In with my dirty washing at the moment," Doyle agreed. "She's next door's. I must leave them a note--they seem to be out."
"Next door." Joy gazed down at her coffee. "That's Mrs O'Hara, right?"
"Yesterday when she answered the door--"
"Yeah. Haven't seen her yet, but her kid Tricia said..."
"Brother. Drinks. Her husband's away on a North Sea job."
"Mmm. Thought I'd just check. Becky and I volunteer at the women's shelter, you know, but--not the brother's house, is it?"
"Don't think so. I was thinking of getting word to her husband, but by the time--"
"She won't get the police to throw him out?"
He shrugged. "Seems to be strong family feeling. Can't be doing the kids any good, either. Though he seems all right with them. Tricia says he even mended her brother's teddy. I'll find out his last name and see if he's wanted for anything."
Joy sipped her coffee. "Moving away from here, are you?"
Doyle nodded. "Just waiting for the eviction notice."
"Those roses are very cooperative. And we've got a few seedbeds and a greenhouse behind the centre if you ever need a bit of earth to get your fingers in. We grow some stuff just for fun."
"Yeah." He met her eyes, gardener to gardener. "Thanks, I'll take you up on it. Healthier than hitting the bottle."
"You and Bodie--a bit of undemanding female company for an evening out suit you sometimes? Beck and I could use the occasional masculine presence to keep the riffraff from panting down our necks. It gets a bit tedious, fending them off."
Doyle laughed ruefully. "Not really used to it yet, being-- He's--I keep expecting him to be off with a bird, you know? And he doesn't. Looks at them, but doesn't. Close on a year now. He got packed off to Belfast yesterday--didn't have a chance to..."
"Takes a bit of work, doesn't it? Beck sometimes gets called on short notice and at the back of my mind I'm holding my breath till she's safe home. Girls aren't a problem for you, then?"
Doyle shrugged. "Still attracted, but--"
"But you've chosen." She nodded. "Beck and I, we have a sort of joke fantasy about it when we fancy a feller. Much easier than pretending it doesn't happen."
She delivered a final rub to Moggy's belly. "We could do with a kitten if hers aren't spoken for. I've got to run. I'll check back later about Maureen O'Hara and everything."
"If you had a word with her about the kitten--?"
"Good idea. We've got a self defence class at the shelter too."
"Might be able to help there sometimes."
"I was hoping you'd say that." She set the mug down and gave Moggy's tummy a final rub, then with a friendly flip of her fingers was away.
Doyle pondered for a moment. Life suddenly seemed to be taking on new dimensions. He remembered the sports club he had started for the black kids all those years ago.
If Bodie...when Bodie...
He scribbled a note for Maureen, filled a dish with water for the kittens--didn't want them falling into the loo and clogging it up--and gave Moggy a cold sausage Bodie had inexplicably overlooked. Indigestible things, cold sausages. No wonder the sight made his chest feel funny. Be safe be safe... He went to work.
"A very Good Friday to you, Doyle."
Doyle managed an appreciative smirk, having been alerted by a couple of early arrivals that the Old Man had come up with a joke.
"Any word from...anyone, sir?"
"As it happens... You remember Herbie?"
Hopes dashed, it took Doyle a moment to get back into gear. "Marge Harper's bodyguard?"
"Aye. He alerted me to the lady's intention to pay a personal visit to you this afternoon, Doyle."
"Bloody hell! Thanks for the warning, sir! Lucky I'm--"
"Oh, you'll be there, Doyle," Cowley said grimly, "prepared to welcome her--with open arms if necessary. Herbie seems to think she knows something of very vital interest about this matter we're working on, and you're the only one in whom she's inclined to confide. You understand me?"
Doyle looked haunted. "Couldn't we ask her round for a special CI5 bath? Still got the rubber gloves."
"Ach, Doyle! That's the kind of tasteless suggestion I'd expect from Bodie, who may yet play cricket if this works out. And you can both have the Sunday and Monday off too--if I don't need you," he added prudently. "You run along, Doyle, and--er--do whatever it is that seems to make you attractive to the lady."
Just you breathing's all I need, Bodie had said once, and Doyle, who had tried various strategies to minimise his appeal to Marge at their meetings, was inclined to think she felt the same way. Still, there was no denying the extra spark of interest that often flared in Bodie's eyes when he'd had a shave and his hair was newly washed and brushed and he wore an open shirt in a colour that suited him and trousers with a really close fit...
Used to do it for birds all the time. For Bodie, too, though I wouldn't admit it. Feels whorish doing it for Marge. It is, just that, whorish. I've chosen...
"Think of England, Doyle," Cowley prodded with gentle malice.
"Roses and bloody lavender, I know."
Oh christ, roses for love and lavender that goes with the jokes about limp wrists... Get back safe and they can have their bloody jokes!
"Oh, go on, then, man, and pour me one too," Cowley ordered impatiently. Doyle concealed his surprise and complied with alacrity.
Charlie had started grizzling and that had set Collum off.
"Wants his little teddy." Collum poked into corners, knocking things heedlessly aside, getting down on all fours to peer under the furniture.
Maureen watched her brother uneasily. Why was he so obsessed with that toy? Mending the tear the kittens had made, picking it up out of Charlie's playpen every half hour. "He's all right, Collum. He's got the pink rabbit just now."
"Where the hell's it gone?"
"I don't know." Maureen wasn't going to enlighten him about Moggy's predilection. At least the kittens were safe next door. She touched the bruise she'd tried to disguise with foundation and powder. She couldn't turn him out, her own brother...
"Just a few days while I find me feet, darlin'."
All charm and promises he was, until the drink was in him, then...
Charlie hurled the rabbit away fretfully and started the Tiny Teddy wail.
"Ahhh, shut your gob." Collum kicked at the side of the playpen. "I'm off out. Find that fuckin' teddy, Maureen."
She stared at the door he slammed behind him.
"I asked Mr Doyle to put him in prison." Tricia had been quietly building with her wooden alphabet blocks.
"Did you, love?" Maureen was too weary to protest.
"He said I could have a pink rose. I think he said I could. Uncle Collum kicked the playpen, Mum."
"I know. He's family, love."
"Moggy puts all her fur up when she thinks somebody's bothering the kittens."
Mother and daughter looked at each other.
Maureen's fingers started to curve like claws.
The kittens tired of the laundry hamper. They clambered onto Doyle's unmade bed and squabbled over the sausage Moggy fetched up for them, then had a go at a nice fresh mouse, which leaked more messily than Tiny Teddy. Moggy had forgotten about the lack of a litter tray, but she found a box with an easily removable lid in the bottom of the wardrobe. It had a nice layer of tissue paper covering the fresh white clothes. One of the kittens decided it was a good place for Tiny Teddy, and left him there after a couple of chews at the sparkly thing working its way out of the tattered tummy.
When everyone had had a little snooze she rounded up another mouse and they got down to some serious training.
Bodie returned from Belfast on Friday afternoon with half of the answers. To his surprise Cowley seemed quite pleased.
"We still don't know where they've got the explosives, sir," he pointed out. "If they can't get at Mount Pleasant their little friends are liable to do the Stock Exchange or the Albert Memorial or something."
"I think Mata Hari Doyle will have some more information for us very soon."
"Our good friend Marge Harper is planning to call on 4.5 to confide what she knows of the matter. A little pillow talk, Bodie." Cowley leaned back in his chair. "You feel you have some grounds for objection?"
Bodie knew he must look like a stranded fish, opening and closing his mouth as he choked back various expletives.
"You should consider the small print, Bodie," Cowley said gently. "You'd be astonished what I can authorise. I might even smile benevolently."
"Sir?" Bodie regarded him with deep distrust.
"Why don't you go along to Doyle's and make sure nobody disturbs him? I expect Herbie and Alf would be glad of the company."
Herbie was lounging in the car in front of Doyle's house and told Bodie that Alf was keeping an eye on the back.
"He'll be having the time of his life, that mate of yours," he told Bodie cheerfully. "Nothing like a bit of experience to keep a feller happy. It's always her that gives them the push, you know."
"When they're worn out," Bodie suggested.
"Could be," Herbie agreed. "The one she just got rid of turned out to be a bit careless with his fist when he was drunk. I could have told her. All balls and blarney and no bloody sense. But she'll never hear a word against her so-called gentleman friends till she's given them the heave-ho."
"Thumped her, did he?"
"Oh, he didn't get that far, or he'd not have left the house on his own legs. Just the notion, though. Stupid sod 'alf-inched her favourite bracelet on the way out so his future ain't what you call bright. There's not a fence in London doesn't know it, and the word's spreading. She--what the--?"
An eldritch screaming inside the house set them both haring towards the back door as Marge erupted through it into Bodie's arms.
"Crawling with mice!" she sobbed against his chest. "Running all over the place! Dead ones on the bed!"
Doyle trailed out behind her--looking very tasty, Bodie noticed, and fully dressed--babbling apologetic reassurances.
Bodie stroked and patted and made soothing noises. It had been months since he'd cuddled a woman, he thought wryly, and Marge was certainly a cosy armful in her way. He raised an interrogative eyebrow at Doyle over her head.
Doyle shook his head despairingly, no doubt envisioning Cowley's wrath.
"Mice." Marge shuddered, and finally pulled herself together. "Oh, it's you."
"The shifty-eyed lout," Bodie agreed cheerfully. "Look, why don't you come and have a nice cup of--"
"I'm not going back in there! I'm off home. Oh, it's all too much, that bastard stealing my diamond bracelet and now..."
"No, look, sit down a minute." Doyle grabbed one of the garden chairs. "Oh, Marge," he gulped with convincing pathos. "Marge, love, please?"
She yielded to his blandishments while Herbie and Alf hovered protectively, prepared to battle the rodent hordes. Bodie went inside and switched the kettle on, then went up to the bathroom. There seemed to be a pervasion of kittens. He glanced curiously into the bedroom, which was a bit smelly. He couldn't blame Marge when he got a look at the gory bed: a veritable shambles of mice.
The wardrobe door was half open, and a box had fallen out, scattering white cloth. Curious, he went to look, fastidiously pushing aside the scattering of soiled tissue paper.
Moggy purred beside him and plucked Tiny Teddy from his ignominious resting place.
"Hang on," Bodie objected as sparkle caught his eye. He caught at one end and was left holding a diamond bracelet while Moggy was away down the stairs, kittens tumbling in her wake, and out through the back door.
Diamond bracelet? Well, perhaps Marge would like this one. He strolled back down to the garden, dangling it nonchalantly.
"Oh!" Marge's latest scream was pure delight as it caught her eye. "Where did you get it?" Her eyes narrowed with suspicion.
"Discovered in a teddy. That one." He indicated Tiny Teddy who was quietly disgorging his stuffing at her feet.
"The one Uncle Collum stitched up," Doyle remembered.
"Collum? Collum Reilly? You know where -- ?"
"I think I can find him for you, Marge, love." He took the bracelet from Bodie and gallantly fastened it on her wrist. "Just you sit quiet for a few minutes and tell me about the post office business while Bodie gets you a nice cup of tea."
By the time Bodie reappeared with a tea tray Doyle was already on the phone feeding juicy details into Cowley's avid ear.
"She must be a good mouser, that one," Marge said, sipping tea to which Bodie had thoughtfully added a slug of brandy, appraising Moggy who was getting stuck into a bowl of milk with her family. "I'd fancy one of the kittens."
"They're next door's," Doyle explained. "I'll take you round in a minute and you can have a word with Maureen. Collum Reilly's her brother and I think she'll be glad to see the back of him."
They didn't even have time to ring the bell before the front door was hurled open and Collum, amidst a fusillade of alphabet blocks, staggered out into the tender clutches of Alf and Herbie. The second kick to the playpen when he returned from the pub had been the final straw. Maureen's fur was finally up, and Tricia was assisting with enthusiasm.
"Nice, those little roses," Marge said, turning away from the unpleasantness and strolling back to Doyle's patio. "Where can I get some?"
"Four and twenty virgins came down from Inverness," Bodie sang, stuffing Doyle's bloodied sheets into a bin liner. "The Cow's sussed us out, you know."
"That's handy." Doyle carefully scooped up the unpleasant wads of tissue paper.
"Wants to be told properly. Small print. Got the impression it would be all right."
Doyle looked resigned. "Just got a nice pair of birds lined up for cover, too."
"No reason we can't have a bit of mixed social life. Keep our skills sharp. Never know when we'll have to sweet-talk a lady for information. Got you to the bedroom, did she?"
"Wanted the loo. Serves her right, snooping about. Thought the mess might slow her down a bit if it came to the worst. Any of that cricket stuff wearable?"
Bodie crouched to examine it. "The pullover's a bit manky, but the rest looks fine. I'll get the one-hour cleaning place to shove it through, just to be safe. I dunno, buying me clothes."
"Well, roses. I gave one to Marge and told her about the garden centre. Mind if Tricia has one as well?"
"Fling 'em wildly, wildly to the throng. Go and see the Cow, shall we? Then if he decides to hand us our cards after all we've got the weekend clear. Take him a bottle, bit of lubrication. Look, Ray, I don't suppose he's keen on hanging us out for the whole world to gawp at, but it'll be easier if we don't have to worry about him, won't it? We'll go out with Joy and Becky and--"
"Call 'em beards in Hollywood, that sort of arrangement, someone was telling me," Doyle put in.
"Oh. Well, handy all round then."
"Get a pound of bacon for Mog on the way back. I expect she'll give you a bit. There's some hot cross buns for you in the bread bin, if the mice haven't tunnelled in. And an Easter egg."
"That sure I'd be back, were you?" Bodie pulled him into a tight hug. "Ah, come on, Ray!"
"Buggerrit." Doyle gave a juicy sniff. "No, it's all right. Just been feeling bad about--"
"My angel-ratbag, you are. Not expecting sweetness and light, you know. Wouldn't recognise you. Where's my Easter egg?"
"In the fridge where the mice can't get it."
"Can't stand cold chocolate. Needs to be room temperature like red wine. Come on, we've got a Cow to charm."
"And then," Doyle said dreamily, "we'll get the cleaning and see what you look like all in white. And out of it. You can do me another striptease in the back of the car."
Moggy settled the exhausted kittens whose basket was now back in the kitchen where she could keep an eye on things. She decided to let Charlie hang on to Tiny Teddy for the moment: the lady who screamed had sent over a catnip mouse.
"Vet for Moggy," Maureen said firmly.
"Oh, Mum," Tricia protested.
"Just the one litter, that was the agreement, now wasn't it? And we'll keep one of the stripy ones, shall we?"
Tricia pouted, but agreed. After all, she had found that nest of dear little baby mice in the cupboard under Mr Doyle's sink when she had helped round up the kittens. He'd said she could have them, and she'd put them at the back of the airing cupboard to be safe from Moggy, with a cold cross bun to keep them going.
Uncle Collum was gone, and Dad would be back next week, and she had her little pink rose. Chocolate eggs on Sunday. She went contentedly to bed.
Moggy slipped out into the night and through Rrrraaaayyy's water room window. She looked into the sleeping den, but they had finished their games and were deep in slumber, Rrrraaaayyy gently snoring, wrapped in the Other One's arms.
All her kittens were safe.
In the kitchen she noticed the delicious odour of milk chocolate, muffled by a tinfoil wrapping, high up on the fridge where the mice couldn't climb. She was good at tinfoil.
Before she left she killed a mouse and dropped it through the hole she had eaten in the chocolate egg. It wasn't such a bad game, after all.
-- THE END --
Revised December 2003
Originally published in Discovered in a Letterbox 14, June 2000