Work Header

The Grey Cat

Work Text:

"Biggles, would you care for a pigeon?" Algy picked up the carcass delicately by the feet and held up before Biggles's face as he emerged from the flat. "Oh look, he's cleaned it for you and everything," he added, noting that the animal's entrails were missing.

A grey shadow slunk away along the service alley.

"He's getting ambitious," Algy went on, still holding the pigeon. "No more mice for you, oh no. Only a pigeon is good enough now. I'm not sure I want to know what he can find in London that's bigger than a pigeon."

Biggles took the pigeon from Algy, opened the lid of the dustbin and deposited it inside. "It's what they do. There's no sense in being annoyed because a cat is a cat."

"I wouldn't be annoyed if I didn't keep stepping on them! Next time you can go out the door first. Just in case there is something bigger than a pigeon around here."

It had all started a month earlier in that same dustbin. There had been an odd rattling sound coming from it as they'd hurried home one wet evening. Ginger had been all for calling the bomb squad out, but Biggles had lifted the lid, reached in and fished out a scrawny, filthy flea-ridden stray cat which had somehow got in after the scraps from their dinner, and then found himself trapped. The animal had hissed and lashed out at all of them, and Biggles had hastily let go, saying, "Steady on there, I was only trying to help."

The cat twisted down to land on all four paws, hissed at them again and skittered off across the road, somehow dodging between a taxi and a delivery boy on a bicycle.

"The bomb squad," Algy was saying to Ginger, "for a cat!"

"It sounded like something ticking," Ginger protested.

"He was starving, and hurt," Biggles said, "did you see, he had something wrong with his leg." And he immediately plunged across the road after it with an almost equal disregard for traffic. Algy winced, but somehow Biggles made it across the road just as the cat had done. Algy and Ginger waited while Biggles vanished into the gloom. It was ten minutes before he returned, damp and frustrated. "I think I saw where he went," he said. "Perhaps I can lure him out again."

"What for?" Algy said. "You got it out of the dustbin, that's all it cares about. If you particularly want a cat, you can get a nicer one than that, my cousin's cat had kittens. A nice cute fluffy kitten, Mrs Symes might like that too."

"I don't want a cat," Biggles said. "But the poor creature would have died in there if we hadn't noticed him, they collect the bins tomorrow morning and they're not careful about it. There's no sense rescuing him and then leaving him to die all over again."

"There are dozens of strays," Algy said. "I've never known you come over all sentimental about them before."

"You needn't be involved," Biggles said curtly, and they all went inside. Ten minutes later Biggles went out again with a cold chicken leg and a sturdy hessian sack. Algy was therefore unsurprised when Biggles returned two hours later, wet through, badly scratched and carrying a writhing and hissing sack. Bertie had come in by then, and Biggles promptly summoned him to assist, and commandeered the bathroom. Morbidly curious, Algy followed them.

The cat was even less preposessing in the electric light when Biggles let him out of the sack: dull grey fur, an ear with several notches taken out of it, and--as Biggles had evidently observed from the start--something badly wrong with one of its hind legs. It sprang up on top of a high shelf anyway and glared defiance at them all.

"Fox bite, poor old thing," Bertie said. "Daft beast, you shouldn't go picking fights with foxes. Best you can probably do is give it a good clean and get a square meal or two into him. He looks like a tough cookie, a bit of help along the way and it'll heal."

Not without difficulty, Biggles recaptured the cat. They had to practically smother it in a thick towel to make it hold still enough for Bertie to clean the wound and put disinfectant on it. Biggles stroked the top of the animal's head, making reassuring sounds all the while. Algy, much to his disapproval, was sent off for another chicken leg and a bowl of water.

"You can't keep him in here," Algy pointed out when he returned with these sacrificial offerings. "Some of us would like to bathe occasionally."

"No, I don't think he'd like it here. I'll put some blankets and food and water in the coal shed. He doesn't like being trapped, do you, old fellow? There, that's better. Easy does it. You're going to be all right."

Bertie finished his work, the cat was released from the towel and limped around the bathroom, located the chicken and ate it with incredible speed and then hid behind the sink pedestal. He really was a truly appalling cat.

After that Algy did not encounter the cat again, and he didn't ask after it, because they had a new case. He hoped that would absorb Biggles's attention, but when he went down to the coal shed to investigate, he found a nest of old blankets covered in grey cat hairs, a bowl filled with clean water, and a saucer that had apparently been licked clean.

It was two weeks later that he found the first dead mouse on the doormat. He kicked it aside, but there was another one the next day, and two the day after that. Watching out the window, Algy saw the grey cat, now a little sleeker and less skeletal than before, and limping less painfully, coming and going down the service alley to the rear of the buildings where the coal shed was located. Apparently they had a new resident. He wouldn't have minded--Mrs Symes had complained of mice in her kitchen occasionally--except that the mice seemed to be materialising on the doorstep instead. When they were all called away for four days, there were several mice in varying stages of decomposition awaiting their return.

One fine evening when they had a window open, Ginger had looked around sharply and saw the cat sitting on the windowledge looking in at them. He had evidently jumped up onto a lower roof underneath to get there, and was eyeing the room suspiciously. Biggles had smiled and said, "Oh, there you are, do you want to come in?" and the cat stared fixedly at him for a while, then jumped down and disappeared again.

But he must have come in at some point, because there was a mouse on the hearthrug the following morning, and one of Algy's good leather slippers had been used as a toy and was found inside the waste-paper bin lightly chewed.

Three days after that, Algy called through to the sitting room, "Biggles, have you got my compass? I need to send it off with the others to be checked."

"Try the bureau."

"It's not there, I looked. D'you think you could find it, I need to go now."

"Can't do it this minute," Biggles said, rather more quietly than Algy had expected. "I'm a little occupied."

Algy looked into the sitting room at that. Biggles was seated by the fire, apparently completely unoccupied. Algy went in properly and saw that the grey cat was sitting upright on Biggles's lap, tail curled neatly around himself, and Biggles was carefully stroking his head. A couple of fresh scratches on his hand bore witness to the fact that this had not been achieved easily.

"I'd rather not get up this minute," Biggles murmured, "not now I've finally got him to come to me."

"He's going to be sleeping on the foot of your bed in a week," Algy muttered disgustedly. Biggles scratched the cat's ears, and Algy distinctly heard a purr.

He was, but it only took three days.

The case had wrapped itself up much more quickly than expected, and so Biggles arrived back at Mount Street a full day before he'd expected. Algy had reluctantly promised to feed the cat while he was away, but nothing in the way he'd agreed to this had prepared Biggles for the scene when he arrived. He went into his bedroom and found Algy lying on his stomach on the carpet, his head underneath Biggles's bed. There was a strong smell of tinned salmon.

"Come on," Algy was saying, "come on, you infernal animal, come here. You've got to eat something. I'm not going to poison you. Look, I went out specially for this salmon. That's it, come here. Ow! You can just have it, you don't have to draw blood first--"

"Making a new friend?" Biggles said.

The cat emerged from under the bed at a full run and wound himself around Biggles's legs, tail held high. Algy extricated himself from under the bed much more slowly, sucking a finger and clutching an open tin of fish.

"You're back," he said. "Thank God. This ridiculous animal has been refusing to eat while you're away. All he does is hide under your bed, and yowl at night. I even gave him my other slipper but he didn't want it."

Biggles took the tin from Algy and set it down on the floor at his feet, where the cat proceeded to lick the whole thing clean in a very few minutes. Biggles surprised an expression of relief on Algy's face.

"There you go, you dreadful cat. I told you he was coming back again. Next time eat it when I give it to you, okay?" He bent down and gave the cat a dubious stroke, ready to jerk his hand away at the first hint of teeth or claws. Instead the cat arched his back into Algy's hand and looked up at him with an expression that could only be described as smug. He turned and leapt up at Biggles, scrabbling up him until he was perched on Biggles's shoulder, then snaked his tail around Biggles's neck and began to purr. Despite himself, Algy laughed.