Author: Chris Cook
"A letter van," Willow said, when Tara had explained what happened to Miss Kitty. "Those bits of paper people send to each other, they call them letters, it's a way they have of talking without actually seeing each other. Beats me why they can't be bothered to meet face to face and sniff like civilised creatures... Anyway," she hastily added, seeing Tara's worried expression, "they don't go to the back of this place, nothing goes in or out of here except those little car things, definitely no vans. But, fear not, I know where they do go."
"You do?" Tara asked eagerly.
"Hey," Willow smiled, twitching her whiskers mischievously, "did I say I knew this town or didn't I? Come on, I'll show you. How are you at rooves?"
"Um, o-okay, I guess," Tara said hesitantly, swishing her tail in what she hoped was a casual manner. "Not that I go up onto the roof much... I climb my tree a lot, I'm good at that."
"You don't get out much, do you?" Willow said lightly. "Doesn't matter, come on, just follow me and you'll be fine. Once you're up there it's easy, there's like two dozen rooves here all in a row, you can just walk from one to the other without even going down to the ground. Okay, like this - bin," she turned and sprang, reaching the lid of the nearest bin easily, "wall," without pause she continued her ascent, pushing off the bin the moment she was atop it, "ledge." Her front paws reached the high ledge she had been sitting on a moment ago, and she pulled herself up easily. "Okay? Your turn."
Steeling herself, Tara sized up the series of jumps. 'It's easy,' she told herself, 'neither of those are higher than the jump up from the ground to the first branch of my tree, easier in fact, these have flat tops... this is easy. Just like my tree. Only everything smells different, and I've never been here before, and don't know what's going to happen...'
"Anytime," Willow offered casually, delicately washing a paw as she waited. Tara flattened her ears back at the jibe, and crouched, ready for a burst of speed.
'Hey, now,' she thought, 'I may not be Miss Know-Everything Street Cat and I may not be on my territory, but I'm not some helpless newborn, and I'm not' she leapt forward, 'going to look like one,' onto the bin, up the wall, 'in front of you, sweetie.' She reached the ledge, and sat on her haunches casually, giving Willow a level stare. Willow was regarding her with an odd expression.
"What?" Tara demanded, confidence putting some fire in her meow, for all that she was deliberately avoiding looking back down the wall at the jump she had made, "you never saw a house cat jump before?" Willow blinked in surprise, then ducked her head in a conciliatory gesture.
"You move prettily," she said, with a bashful little flick of her tail. "This way." She got up and trotted along the ledge, leaving Tara to follow, confused but pleased with herself.
"So you're a smart cat," Willow said as they walked from rooftop to rooftop, "you figured out how to cross roads like the people do, I was watching you before, and you've got plenty of courage coming out of your territory to find your Miss Kitty... how come you're with your people in the first place?"
"What do you mean?" Tara asked, ignoring her tail, which perked up of its own accord. She liked it when this odd, feisty cat complimented her.
"Why do you stay? Is it just until Miss Kitty's big enough to leave with you, or what?"
"Leave?" Tara frowned. "You mean leave home? Of course not, I love my people, why would I want to leave?"
"Why wouldn't you?" Willow countered. "Be your own mistress, live your own life... you don't like being a pet, do you?"
"What's wrong with being a pet?" Tara countered.
"People keep pets like toys, something cute they can play with now and then... I just thought you'd want more than that."
"It's not like that at all," Tara protested, "I don't let my people keep me - they don't lock me in or anything - I stay because I want to. They're my family."
"Family?" Willow echoed. "You know, I wouldn't have thought I'd hear something like that from a smart cat like you."
"Oh no?" Tara bit back. "Why not?"
"Well, it's kind of kittenish thinking, isn't it?" Willow said airily. "Not that there's anything wrong with kittens, but you know how they are, latch on to anything and think it's their family, even if it's a person. Don't get me wrong, I think Miss Kitty's lucky to have you - I bet she looks up to you like you're her mother, doesn't she?"
"Kind of," Tara admitted, with a little pride, "I'm her 'big sister'... not by birth, but, well, you know..."
"Yeah," Willow nodded. "But kittens grow out of it - learn to take care of themselves, stop needing people. I mean, house cats get used to having their meals handed to them and put up with people, but you don't strike me as that type, you're too good for that. Smart, I mean," she corrected herself, with a suspiciously bashful swing of her tail, "self-reliant if you wanted to be, you know..."
"I don't 'put up' with my people," Tara said firmly, "and I'm not just some kind of toy to them. They love me... and, I love them. It doesn't matter that I'm a cat and they're people, they're my family, and that's that." She gave Willow a challenging look, daring her to argue further.
"Okay," the ginger cat said after a pause, "sorry, it's not my business... this way."
Tara followed, wondering at her. She wished she knew what was going on between those perky ears.
"There it is," Willow said, motioning Tara to the edge of the roof, "that's where the letter vans come from."
They had crossed nearly a dozen streets' worth of rooves, descending into laneways to get from one block of buildings to another. Willow had known every ledge, every roof - Tara had been worried, after their disagreement, that Willow would lose interest in helping her along the way, but she seemed resolute. Now Tara joined her at the edge of their current roof, and looked down.
Across a broad street was a huge building, big enough to swallow up Tara's home without even noticing. It was tall, three stories, with square edges and a flat roof, a huge grey box with glittering flat windows in rows along its front. Down at the street level there was a section with a glass front, like the shops, and Tara spotted a sign bearing the letter van's pattern, and peering, saw it repeated several times, smaller, on various other parts of the building. No other buildings stood close to it on either side, and behind it was a broad river. A rumbling noise caught her attention, and she directed her gaze to one side, where a ramp led down underground.
"There it is!" she yelped in excitement, "that's the van!"
"Wait!" Willow warned her. "Hang on, are you sure? I know that one's purr, that's the one that goes along the streets sunward of here. That's not where you came from, it can't be the same one."
"There's more than one?" Tara asked, staring down at the van as it began to descend the ramp.
"I know for a fact there's at least ten," Willow said, "maybe more. This is on the edge of the territory I know, I haven't been in there for... oh, must be a year at least. Last time, they had a bunch of vans just sitting inside doing nothing, as well as the ones I recognised."
Tara stared, caught between Willow's advice, and her own instinct to race down, somehow cross the street, and reach the van before it vanished. Her heart leapt in her throat as she saw the wall at the end of the ramp raise, revealing a grey cavern beyond, under the building, but then, when the van turned to enter it, she saw that its person wasn't the one she knew - this one was a female.
"It's not the one," she agreed, her tail slumping, "you're right... it even sounds different, a bit... I guess I was too excited to notice. I'm sorry."
"Hey," Willow offered, sidling up to her, "no problem, I can understand you wanting your little sister back." She bent and touched her forehead to Tara's neck reassuringly, surprising her.
"O-okay," Tara said, not sure how to take Willow's affection, after thinking she was probably mad at her after their disagreement. "So, what do we do? The other vans come here too?"
"They do," Willow nodded, "the one that prowls your street is probably already in there. Now, I know a couple of ways in, but we'll have to be careful! There's lots of people in there during the day, and they don't want cats just wandering through their place. But I can get us in, then we find where they leave the vans, and find Miss Kitty."
"What if she's not with the van still?" Tara asked.
"We'll find her," Willow promised, "this is the keenest nose that ever graced a cat, it's never failed me. We'll get down there, I'll take a sniff to get my bearings," she lifted her nose in the air and inhaled theatrically, "and..." A puzzled expression crossed her features, and she paused.
"What?" Tara asked. "What's wrong?"
"I smell a rat," Willow declared darkly.