11. A Boy Named Sue

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The air outside the DPRS was warm as Jamieson sat on the steps

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The air outside the DPRS was warm as Jamieson sat on the steps. The fireflies had gone to sleep in the red heat of the day and the lamps were dull. The street was shades of pink and orange. There was a queue to enter the building behind them. People stared at the trio, jealous presumably that they'd found their beloved pet. If only they knew, thought Geoff, this angry ginger was a stranger in their house.

Geoff didn't know how he knew it was a ginger. He just did. In the same way he knew when he was hungry. If Susan had skin and flesh and fur, Geoff knew his fur would have been plentiful. Maybe it wasn't anything mystical that signalled Susan's true form to Geoff. Maybe it was just the way he carried himself, like a lion.

Susan finally managed to squirm out of Naomi's grip and landed with a disgruntled mew on all four feet.

Susan finally managed to squirm out of Naomi's grip and landed with a disgruntled mew on all four feet

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"Hey boy," said Geoff, as he bent down to pat the cat.

Susan flinched away from his touch and walked a few steps down to street level. Geoff crouched lower on the steps and clicked his fingers. Instead of coming any closer Susan ran further away from him.

"Wait" Geoff shouted.

"No," Naomi said.

She grabbed Geoff by the wrist. "We can't spend the whole trip chasing after him. If he's going to come with us he needs to do it of his own accord."

Geoff wasn't sure this was a good idea, he didn't want to show up at the house of Naomi's nearly namesake and demand Bernie back with no replacement cat as an offering. That would turn their mission from a trade deal to a kidnapping.

The street was still quiet but there were signs of life. A breakfast shop on the corner had put out their sign offering all day bacon shakes. A neighbouring umbrella shop wasn't open yet, but he could see a woman wearing a poncho in the window, arranging her stock. A sign advertised "No two handles alike, every brolly custom made". Geoff had no idea how such a niche store could survive -- even in a bustling capital in the overworld -- let alone in the half-abandoned Civic Quarter of Skeleton City.

There were street vendors selling hotdogs on sticks and the smell of the meat seemed to have roused the vermin of the underworld. The rats were poking their pointed skelly noses out of the stormwater drains and up through the sewer grates that ran the length of the street.

Susan stopped at one of the sewer openings and crouched down as low as he could to the ground. He lifted his pelvis in the air, tensing through his back legs and swaying, cutely, almost like a dance, wiggling his butt. To the rat on the other side of the sewer, that dance would be terrifying, a primal fear, knowing what was about to come. Susan bent his elbows sharply, scraping his chin against the ground, and lifted his tail high in the air. In one lightning flash, he jumped forward and half his body disappeared into the storm drain.

His torso slid sideways as he scrambled to keep his footing. He twisted in the opening of the sewer before pushing back, digging in his paws and reversing into the street. He emerged with the writhing skeleton of a rat clamped tight in his jaws.

This was definitely not their cat. Bernie had been an inside cat her whole life and was terrible at catching any animal. They didn't get rats inside their shack back above ground. But they did get a lot of cockroaches. The best Bernie seemed to be able to do was befriend them.

They would often leave in the morning with Bernie gently pawing a terrified roach across the tile floor. Geoff or Naomi would return hours later expecting to find the black shell of a disembodied cockroach thorax or the flakes of wing bits and jagged tiny legs scattered across the shack.

Instead, they'd discover the cockroach dead of exhaustion but still intact with Bernie sitting mournfully next to it, watching, sniffing at the roach, wondering where her new friend went. Bernie was definitely no sewer rat catcher.

Susan walked back across the road, past a startled homeless man, carrying the now still frame of the rat in its mouth. He jumped gracefully back to the stoop where Jamieson lounged and dropped the rat, a gift, at his feet. The cat curled up next him.

Naomi looked down at Jamieson and smiled "I think he's chosen you."

Jamieson patted Susan. "I'd choose me too," he said with no hint of a joke.

"Sue," said Jamieson, chuckling to himself, "I'm guessing your human was a Johnny Cash fan."

He scritched Susan behind the ear and the grumpy tomcat began to purr so loudly Geoff was sure he could feel the faint vibrations of it in his feet.

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Geoff felt the heat of the day beat down on them, and he dreamed of sleep.

He was exhausted, bone tired. He wanted to find Bernie. But most of all, at that moment, all he wanted was to go home and nap. Even the fire roof of the shack seemed preferable to sleep deprivation. If there was one thing Geoff would have guessed was in plentiful supply in the afterlife it would have been rest. But alas, he was not resting in peace. He was, much like in life, tired and aiming for a seemingly impossible goal.

"Do you think maybe we should go home before we continue any further," Geoff asked tentatively, "I mean get some supplies, get some rest and make a plan. You know, think about this before we do anything rash."

"The only supply you need is a good, hard drink," Jamieson said.

"I'm not sure that's the best strategy," said Geoff, trying to be diplomatic.

"I'm not sure you're the best strategiser," Jameison said, quick as a whip.

Geoff felt a surge of irritation rise in his astral throat.

"You really don't have to come along you know, you've helped us plenty already," he said, failing to hide his mood.

Jamieson didn't respond but Geoff had the distinct impression that it wouldn't matter how rude he was to him, the caped man wouldn't care.

"I agree with Jamieson," Naomi said. "I don't want to go home and sleep. I want to find Bernie. every second counts. And also, I could do with a drink."

"I thought you weren't going to drink anymore. After what happened" Geoff said and before the words had slipped out of his mouth he regretted them. There were some things that you didn't say, no matter how annoyed you were.

"I'm sorry," he said quickly "I shouldn't have said that. I'm just tired."

He grabbed Naomi's hand and held it against his cheek. Her face didn't betray any emotion.

"Our bones are strong. There's no reason for us to enter the world of dust anytime soon. Bernie's okay. She's alive." Geoff said.

"No, she's dead. The overseer saw her" Naomi said.

"Right. Well, she's undead. She's here."

Jamieson stood up and as he did so Susan uncurled his body and arched his back in a stretch.

Jamieson stepped between Geoff and Naomi and wrapped both of them in a languid embrace, draping his arms over their shoulders.

"I know a place that has great cocktails," he said, looking at Naomi.

"How do you know I like cocktails?" Naomi asked.

"Everybody likes cocktails," Jamieson said.

"Does it have a couch?" Geoff asked.

"Even better," said Jamieson, "it has coffee."

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