13. The Story Collector

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She couldn't stop playing with her drink

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She couldn't stop playing with her drink. That's what the barman said. She kept spinning the tumbler back and forth. She took a long time to drink it, only one drink, and as she did she muttered to herself. The small cat skeleton, maybe the one they were looking for, she just sat on the bench. And Frankie thought it was funny when the crazy lady called the cat Bernie. Funny name for a girl cat.

While she muttered to herself she kept talking about the sea. About making it to the ocean. The barman didn't know what she was talking about, but Jamieson had such a knowing glint in his eye that Geoff was certain he knew something about the woman's plans, gleaned somehow from the thin pickings of Frankie the barman's memory.

And so Geoff found himself only minutes later, stumbling back onto the daytime streets of the Civic Quarter, back out in the hustle and bustle of Skeleton City. They cut through an alley that ran behind the Blind Monk and followed Jamieson, with Susan perched like an aggressively oversized parrot on his shoulder, through a maze of thin walkways into the winding laneways of New Chinatown.

"Are you sure this is the way to the docks?" Naomi asked anxiously.

She kept a brisk pace beside Jamieson. Geoff tried to keep up but he was exhausted; he hadn't slept properly in more than twenty-four hours and the coffee hadn't done much to perk him up. He pondered his lack of caffeine in a haze of sleep deprivation. What sort of cruel underworld had fancy cocktail bars but no decent coffee?

"I'm certain" Jamieson said.

"Was Bernie your only pet in the before time?" Jamieson asked. The question didn't seem to be directed at either Geoff or Naomi in particular. As if unsettled by Jamieson's mention of another cat, Susan pushed himself possessively against the neck of his new-found companion.

Naomi didn't answer. She shot a glance at Geoff and then stared forwards at the cobbled laneway.

Geoff looked up at Jamieson and Susan eyed him back warily. He did have a pet before Bernie. Another cat with a genderbent name, a girl cat called Toby. Another cat much kinder and tinier than Susan. Toby was his first cat. He felt a pang of guilt and it escaped from his body as a sigh.

"Just one. A mackerel tabby. Toby," Geoff said.

"Still alive?" Jamieson asked.

"I think so" Geoff said.

"You think so?" Jamieson said.

Just like at the bar when Jamieson had watched the fight with keen interest but not intervened, now he walked alongside Geoff listening intently, but not changing the subject, not avoiding the mess.

Susan jumped lightly down from Jamieson's shoulder and walked a few paces ahead of the group.

Geoff didn't want to talk about it or think about it. But it was still fresh in his mind, somehow, after all those years.

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