He'd never known it could get so dark. Once you stepped away from the pale pool of light immediately beneath the street-lamp, the shadows closed in. It wasn't raining yet, but there was so much dampness in the air that it was only a matter of time. A sudden gust of wind ripped more leaves from the trees and hurled them across his path. He stumbled and nearly fell, choking back something between a curse and a sob. But he didn't know any curses vile enough and, anyway, he mustn't make any noise.
Along the side of the garage, the ground was rougher and more uneven. For a brief aching moment, he longed for the city pavements and houses huddled together in endless terraces with lights shining out of their windows, the pale blue patch of TV screens glowing inside and, at whatever hour of the day or night, music and voices.
He had never been out this late before. Alone. He was going to have to get used to it. The old life had gone. Maybe for ever. He no longer trusted all the promises his mother had made. She wasn't here. Already the most important of them had been broken. She had changed her mind about the date of her return - or he had. They were going to prolong their honeymoon. They were going to stay away for weeks and weeks more. He was stuck here with Auntie Mags for the winter.
There was the tree, right where the gang had said it would be. It was enormous, its lower branches an uncomfortable distance from the ground, its highest branches swaying above the roof of the garage. Once he got up it, it should be easy to get on to the flat garage roof and then through the window and into the house.
Someone else's house. That was against the law. It frightened him, he had never broken the law before.
He shifted his backpack a bit so that it lay firmly between his shoulders and the straps wouldn't slip down over his arms. He hoped it was going to be big enough.
It took several jumps before he caught hold of the lowest branch and hauled himself up. He sat panting on the branch for a moment, wishing he was somewhere - anywhere - else. But he had to do it. They never thought he would, that was why they had made it a condition of his joining the gang. He was going to show them. They couldn't keep him out.
How had they known he was afraid of heights? That was why they were making him do this. They thought he'd give up and go away. He'd show them!
Grimly, he pushed himself to his feet and began to pull himself upwards from branch to branch until he was on the branch that was level with the roof. He shuffled sideways along the branch, clinging to the twigs of the branch above. The end of the branch dipped beneath his weight and he clung so tightly to the twigs that he stripped them of their remaining leaves. It had to be done.
He left the shadowy safety of the tree to scramble across the open exposed space of the roof. His feet were making crunching noises. Could they hear that inside the house?
He stopped and looked at the dark window opening directly on to the roof. It belonged to an unused guest room. They told him Mrs Nordling had plans to change it into a long french window which would open on to the roof garden she was going to create.
It was a good idea, but they also said Mr Nordling was already complaining about the expense. The general opinion was that Mr Nordling was a cheap bastard. Maureen, Kerry's big sister, did cleaning for the Nordlings and Old Nordling was always cheating her out of the full amount due. Mrs Nordling would try to make up for it by slipping Maureen a bit extra when she could, but she had to be careful that Mr Nordling didn't catch her, even though it was her own money. Mr Nordling had a rotten temper. Kerry had it in for Mr Nordling. That was why he wanted Robin to do this house. Two birds with one stone.
Robin flattened himself against the house - or tried to. He'd forgotten the backpack. He shrugged himself out of it and put it back on with the sack in front, then unbuckled the flap. He was going to need quick and easy access to it. Then he closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths.
He'd never even thought of breaking the law before. He was afraid of going to jail if he was caught. Now he had to break into this house and remove - steal - Mrs Nordling's most prized possession.
No, not exactly break in. Kerry had promised him that the window would be unlocked. Maureen would see to that. It was going to be left unlocked all this week.
Maybe he could call it off for tonight and come back later in the week.
No. Once he reached the ground, he knew he would never be able to force himself back up that tree again. It was now or never. And never meant that he could never be part of the gang. That was unthinkable, too.
He had lost his old life, his home, his friends ... his mother. Without the gang, he was nothing.
He leaned forward, shielding his eyes, to peer through the window, to make certain it was as dark inside as it seemed. There was a sharp clink as the buckle of his backpack struck the pane and he recoiled instantly. Had anyone heard?
Darkness and silence. The Nordlings were asleep, they must be. Or - an uneasy thought came to him - perhaps they had gone out to visit friends, or to dinner and a film. Perhaps the house was empty now, but they would return at any minute. Return - and catch him in the act. The act he didn't want to think about.
He tested the window, hoping Kerry's promise was a lie. Everyone else lied. But the window glided upwards, inviting entry. He held his breath and listened again. Still silence.
He forced himself over the windowsill and stood inside, listening, waiting for his eyes to grow accustomed to the extra layers of darkness inside the house. A chill wind blewthrough the window behind him. He half turned, then remembered that he mustn't close it. He might need to get out in a hurry ... after he had found what he wanted.
No. What Kerry wanted. It wasn't going to be hurt, Kerry had assured him, but what about him? He wasn't afraid of cats. Of course, he wasn't. He just hated them. All those teeth and claws and bristling tails and yowling.
An ice-cold fatalism settled over him. He was never going to get away with this. How did you even find the cat in a great big house like this? It might be in any room. It might even be sleeping on Mrs Nordling's bed.
Even if he found it, how could he get hold of it without being slashed to ribbons? That Leif Eriksson was one giant cat. There had been a picture in the paper of Mrs Nordling holding him when he won a first prize in the local Cat Show. She almost couldn't do it. Norwegian Forest cats were about a thousand times bigger than ordinary cats and he was afr - he hated them, too.
His reluctant feet had carried him to the door. He fished the small torch out of his pack and then the knitted gloves, which were the only ones he had. Some protection they'd be against those giant claws.
With the gloves on, he could delay no longer. He turned the knob and the door opened smoothly with no betraying squeak from the hinges. He risked a small flash of light to get his bearings. The carpet was deep and soft, muffling footsteps. That was good. He began to close the door behind him, then stopped. How would he know which door led into the room with the open window, if he did that? He carefully pushed the door all the way back against the wall, leaving a gaping black oblong for him to dive into if he had to leave in a hurry.
All the other doors were closed. Was that a faint gleam of light along the base of the one facing the wall just at the side of the wide central staircase? He stopped and listened again: still silence. Maybe it was just a bathroom with a night light that stayed on all night.
Where did you look to find a cat? Shading the light with his hand, he switched on the torch again and let its pale ray travel along the edge of the carpet. There was a saucer of water and a feeding bowl with a scattering of dry food beside the doorway; this was obviously one of the places the cat frequented, but it was not here now.
It could be behind any one of the closed doors. Or on the floor above, or the floor below. That was where the kitchen would be. Cats always liked to stay close to the kitchen, didn't - ?
He froze. A low murmuring had begun in the room with the light on. A man's voice and then a woman's. Mr and Mrs Nordling weren't asleep, after all, but there was something strange about the way the voices sounded. Perhaps they were watching a television drama.
He backed away slowly, but the voices kept growing louder. Angrier. He couldn't make out the words, but they were shouting now. Both of them.
For a further forlorn moment, he clung to the hope that it was some old movie on television. Then Mrs Nordling screamed.
The door opened and light blazed across the hallway. An object flew through the air, hit the wall with a thud and slid down it to lie motionless by the skirting board, like a fur cushion.
The door slammed shut. The shouting resumed. The screams became hysterical, the shouts inarticulate with fury.
Robin inched closer, crouched and put out his hand to touch the motionless object. It was furry and warm, but it didn't respond at all. Was it dead or just knocked out? It had hit the wall awfully hard.
Whichever, it could offer no resistance. Robin gathered it up gingerly, eased it into his backpack and buckled down the flap.
Now all he had to do was go back to that open window and get out of -
'Eeeeeaaaagh! No! Don't! Stop - stop - '
There was a nasty crunching sound. Even nastier than when the cat had hit the wall. Mrs Nordling began to sob loudly. 'No ... please ... don't ...'
'Shut up, bitch! I've had enough of you! You - and that bloody cat, too!' There were loud crashes and muffled thumps.
'My arm! You broke my arm! You madman! I'll - '
'You'll do nothing! You're finished!'
Robin flinched at the sounds coming from behind that door. He might be a kid, but he knew what was going on. Should he try to do something? What could he do? He stood frozen in horror, his stomach sinking down to his ankles, his heart wrenching and lurching as though it was going to burst out of his chest -
No, it wasn't his heart. It was the cat waking up and stirring. Any second now, it would realise it was shut up in a backpack, and begin fighting to get free.
'You and your furry lover-boy! You think more of that cat than you do of me!'
'Why shouldn't I? He isn't betraying me with a procession of whores!'
There was a crash as some large object slammed into the door then a thud and most of the line of light at the base of the door was blotted out. The shouts and screams became louder still and even more incoherent. There was a steady pounding squelching sound, an inaudible pleading, a choking, gurgling voice that gradually slipped into silence, although the blows went on and on until, finally, they slowed and stopped.
'Ingrid?' the man's voice, restored to sanity, called anxiously. 'Ingrid? Are you all right? ... Oh, God!'
Robin risked a quick flash of the torch at the shadow blotting out the light at the foot of the door. A dark stain seemed to be seeping into the carpet from the other side of the door. His eyes were blurred and the light was not too good, but he had a terrible feeling that it was red.
'Right ... right ...' There was a trace of desperation in Mr Nordling's voice, as though, if he kept talking to his wife, he might get some response.
'Right ... back to bed then ...' there was a grunt and the long streak of light sprang back into place. 'Bed ... you'll feel better in the morning, Ingrid ... Ingrid?'
'Mmmrrreeeeoooow!!' Leif Eriksson snapped back to life, even if his mistress didn't. The banshee howl sent Robin reeling across to the other side of the stairwell, clutching at the thrashing backpack.
'That's it!' There was a thud, as of a body hitting the floor. 'Right! You asked for it! You're next, Eriksson!'
The door was wrenched open violently, a blinding blast of light cut a swathe across the hall. Mr Nordling lurched out of the bedroom. He was naked, dark red splotches of blood glistening on his pale skin. His wife's blood.
Robin whimpered with a primitive terror that he instinctively knew was beyond any question of bravery or age. His hand shot up, the torch full on, blazing into Mr Nordling's face.
'What?' Nordling flung an arm in front of his eyes. 'Who is it? Who's there?'
He couldn't reach the open door leading to the open window now. Mr Nordling was blocking his way. There was only one other way to go.
Robin launched himself down the staircase, taking the steps two at a time, slipping, stumbling, but impelled by a terror greater than anything he had ever known. Leif Eriksson wouldn't be the only one to be killed if Mr Nordling caught up with them.
'Stop! Come back! I can explain! It isn't what you think!' Mr Nordling was starting down the staircase now in pursuit.
The cat had stopped struggling and gone silent, probably disorientated by all the jouncing and shouting. Robin's eyes were more accustomed to the dark than Mr Nordling's. He drew a bead on the front door and dashed for it.
Mr Nordling was right behind him, gaining on him. The stairs seemed endless, his breath was giving out ... he could never make it. He was dead, finished, in this strange house in this awful town, with his mother thousands of miles away. Would she care? Would she even notice, now that she had anew husband and was starting a new life? A life in which there might not even be a place for him ...
The front door! He wrenched at the knob, tugging against the heavy unyielding wood, the force of gravity ... In just another couple of seconds, Nordling would catch his neck between those murdering hands ...
Half sobbing, Robin pulled with all his might and the door swung back, carrying him with it. With a bellow, he let go and flung himself forward into the night.
The outer light blazed on behind him, throwing his own dark shadow ahead of him, an elongated, curiously menacing spectre. He glanced back over his shoulder fearfully.
There was the loud slam of an upstairs door, as the sudden draught swept through the house.
Nordling stopped abruptly, framed in the doorway in his stark nakedness, recalled to his senses by the slamming door and the abrupt realisation of his condition. There were neighbours in the surrounding houses; at any instant, one of them could look out and see him.
Robin stumbled as the light behind him disappeared and the front door echoed the slam from above. He kept on running though. His breath was ragged and there was a sharp pain in his side, but he was going to keep on running until he felt safe - or until he collapsed.
Something told him he would never feel safe again.
TO CATCH A CAT. Copyright © 2000 by Marian Babson. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.