Books by Susan M Phillips
Web Site: Spiralthreads
The strange tale of an odd man and an even odder cat.
CAT’S PAW AND THE THREEFOLD LAW
By Sue Phillips
Fate is a strange thing. Sometimes it is heralded by a feeling that something unusual is about to happen. Sometimes a day that begins mundane ends by changing your life forever, and this was how it was for Daniel.
He was minding his own business when it happened. Daniel was not a gregarious man, but during the run up to a major competition he always kept himself to himself even more than usual. By the time he reached the finals, he was virtually incommunicado. It was the only way he could concentrate on his game.
He was the only competitor staying at the Wavy Palms Guesthouse. More precisely, he was the only guest. That suited him. He did not wish to discuss the finer points of the game with people he planned to annihallate. He would enjoy the luxury of a social life once he had reached the top of the tree, with all opponents thoroughly under the thumb. There was no time to waste. This event was the National finals and he badly wanted to win, just so he could wipe the sneer off the face of the woman at the Job Centre who kept telling him to stop wasting his time and get a proper job. The nerve of her.
Concentration. That was what it took to win. Pure, unbroken concentration. How was he supposed to concentrate if he had to run around looking for work?
If that meant that money was so short he had to half starve himself to save enough to stay in a seedy b&b miles away from the competition venue, with only the landlady and her large, amiable, coal black cat, Tiddles for company, then so be it. Stroking the cat was good exercise for his hands. The cat certainly did not mind. It seemed to particularly enjoy having its unusually powerful shoulders kneaded, and rumbled like a farm tractor as his thumbs dug into the well-formed muscles. Tiddles was such a tiny name for such a large creature and Daniel wondered if there might be a little wild blood in its ancestry.
Though a little odd, Mrs Winky, the land lady was efficient and cooked edible meals. She approved of his attitude towards her pet, nodding and smiling when she saw Tiddles on his lap. In all other respects she was happy to leave him in peace.
Daniel had decided to take a walk. He had less than twenty-four hours before the competition and felt the need to clear his mind. The weather was chilly and he had taken the precaution of donning a pair of leather motorcycle gauntlets before setting off, the better to protect his hands, particularly that all-important right thumb.
So, there he was, walking along the street, concentrating on his game, and speaking to no-one. He hadn’t been taking much notice of his surroundings. He didn’t need to. Whenever Daniel went for a walk in a strange town, he always followed the same route: turn left out of the door, take the first left that did not look like a dead end, and do the same again a couple of times. If it did not bring him back to the front door, he would simply turn round and retrace his steps. The system generally allowed him to get a little fresh air without taxing his mind with irrelevancies.
He pulled off the gloves and massaged his thumb lovingly. It had brought him a long way in a short time, and would take him the final step tomorrow. He was so lost in his thoughts that he did not notice the raised flagstone until his toe caught on it. Tripping forward, he landed hard, his hand crashing onto a sharp raised ridge. Daniel rolled over as his body creased into paroxysms of pain and he curled up protectively around his injured hand.
His injured right hand.
Pain momentarily forgotten, he looked down anxiously so see what damage had been done. The ridge had cut a straight, bloody line across every finger, but he hardly noticed that; he was too busy staring at his thumb. The entire upper joint was gone. Cut off. He searched round wildly and saw it lying, like a pink cocktail sausage beside a sharp fragment of iron that protruded from the ground where some sort of post had once stood. If he could get it to a hospital, they might be able to sew it on. He reached out to pick it up, but a wave of nausea assailed him and he fell to his knees again and retched helplessly for a full minute.
Afterwards, he sat back on his heels, waiting for the spots to clear from his eyesight as he wondered if anything else unpleasant could happen. A large dog had arrived on the scene and lapped enthusiastically at the pool of vomit. Daniel was too weak to care. Until it turned its attention further afield, sniffing the ground and licking at the spattered blood stains.
He must get it before the dog did.
Gritting his teeth against the bile that threatened to rise again, Daniel reached out for the dismembered digit, but was no match for the determined canine, which snapped it up and gulped it down. It regarded him cheerfully, wagging its tail as if it expected him to provide further titbits. Tears welled in Daniel’s eyes and he hurled one of the heavy gloves at it in fury. The dog caught it expertly and trotted off to demolish its latest prize.
Daniel did not know how he managed to get back to the Wavy Palms, but he found himself sitting in the kitchen, having his hand tended by Mrs Winky whilst Tiddles looked on and groomed his gleaming black pelt. The landlady was shaking her head and tutting.
‘It’s a bad do, young man. Where did it happen?’
‘Around the corner – a street that runs parallel with this one. There was a bit of metal post sticking up out of the ground.’
‘The old bus stop. I always said there’d be a nasty accident there one of these days. They took it down when Waldorf Street Bus Depot closed. Made a real pigs ear of it. Tiddles was born at the bus depot – born as a cat, that is.’ She peered at the stump that had once been his thumb. ‘Clean wound. Shame you didn’t think to pick up the thumb, they can do wonders down at the hospital nowadays.’
‘I did think.’ the words came out in a gulping sob. ‘A dog. A big black dog…’
‘What, young man? Spit it out.’
‘No, he didn’t. And he ate my glove.’
‘There, there. You’re hysterical. Understandable in the circumstances. I’ll just finish binding your wounds, then we’ll get you off to hospital so you can be attended to properly.’
‘I wanted to be champion.’ He was sobbing properly now and Tiddles was rubbing against Daniel’s legs, winding himself in and out of his feet. Hardly conscious of his actions, Daniel rubbed the cat’s ear with his good hand and it responded with a loud purr.
Mrs Winky tied off the bandage expertly. She patted his shoulder. ‘There, there. Lots of people have managed all sorts of things with much more serious injuries than yours. What kind of a champion did you want to be?’ Daniel told her through choking tears and she looked ruefully at the bandage. ‘I can see how that could be a bit hard, unless you happen to be left handed?’
‘I’m not,’ he replied flatly.
Meanwhile, the cat had jumped up onto his lap and was rubbing affectionately against his cheek, gathering the wet tears onto his gleaming black face. He emitted a sound that was a cross between a purr and a miaow. Mrs Winky glanced down at her pet. ‘It’s a lot of trouble for a children’s game.’
Daniel stiffened and the cat jumped down, startled. ‘Children’s game? Children play football. Does that make the World Cup a children’s game?’ He asked indignantly. ‘I was due to play in the National finals.’
‘Don’t excite yourself so, young man. I meant no offence. In any case, I was talking to the cat, not to you. I take it you’re serious about your ambition?’
Daniel just glared at her angrily, insulted that she could even ask such a question. She regarded him for a moment and the cat nudged her hand with his nose, resting a paw on her lap. She took it in her hand, stroking it gently.
‘Tiddles says you can borrow his paw, just for a day or two.’
‘What’s he going to do?’ asked Daniel, unable to keep the vitriol from his quavering voice, ‘come and play my shots for me?’
‘Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit and is wasted on children – and animals. We can use a bit of magic to transfer his paw onto your thumb and when you’ve won your game…,’
‘When you’ve won your match, you can bring it back.’
Daniel blinked his tears away, hardly daring to hope. ‘Can you do that? Really? Are you a witch or something?’
‘Witch!’ exploded the woman, ‘Witch! Those namby pamby niminy piminies! All they do is hug trees and cast love spells for superstitious twits. If you’re going to insult me, young man, then we’ll forget all about it right now.’
‘No, please. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.’ The pain had momentarily faded, but returned sharply and he winced, holding his hand out awkwardly.
Mrs Winky regarded him fiercely. ‘Well, do you want to or not? I haven’t got all day.’
‘Yes, I mean, no, I mean – do I have to sell you my soul or something?’
‘Sell me your … No! Your soul’s your own. I’ve no wish to take on your karmic debts, thank you very much. This is Tiddles’ way of repaying you for all those massages you’ve been giving him. As for me, you can buy me a box of shortbread. I’m very partial to a piece of shortbread with a cup of tea.’
‘Won’t people notice if I’ve got a cats paw where my thumb should be?’
‘Does it matter? If it bothers you, I’ll put a glamour on it. People will see what they expect to see. Just you remember to bring it back, magic this powerful is subject to the Three Fold Law.’
‘I know that one – whatever you do, good or bad, comes back to you three times!’
‘No, that’s the witches’ version. I’m a sorceress.’ Mrs Winky went on to explain the Three Fold Law of the sorcerers and Daniel agreed to be bound by it. She then led him into her private parlour and began to prepare for the transfer, explaining that the ritual had to be started within an hour of the accident in order to work.
An hour later, a three-legged cat limped out of the room, followed by a young man with a black furry paw where his right thumb should have been.
Daniel went up to his room, flexing his cats paw thumb experimentally. It responded well. He touched it gingerly with the fingers of his other hand and shuddered slightly as he felt the fur. The door swung open a little and in limped Tiddles. He gazed at Daniel steadily and sat directly in front of him. Daniel reached his hand to stroke him and the cat’s paw came into contact with its true owner. Tiddles licked it and Daniel was touched by the careful attention the cat gave to it. He looked up at Daniel again and let out a sharp mew before returning his attention to the paw. The nerves in the paw seemed to have connected to Daniel’s own and he could feel every movement of the cat’s tongue. Tiddles was cleaning between the toes and around the claws. Daniel discovered that he could separate the toes and extend and retract the claws at will. The realisation excited him inexplicably. Finished with his task, Tiddles jumped awkwardly onto the bed and curled into a black furry ball. Seconds later, he was asleep.
There was only one way to know whether the transplant would be effective. Daniel pulled out his practice board, set it up, and tried a couple of shots. The thumb was awkward, seeming to have a mind of its own. He looked at it, flexing it as he turned it this way and that. The toes were responding individually instead of functioning like the single pad of the digit they replaced. He took some more shots, consciously placing each individual toe.
Success. A perfect shot.
Suddenly exhausted, Daniel climbed onto the bed beside Tiddles and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. He was awoken by Mrs Winky, who was shaking his shoulder and calling him.
‘Young man. Young man! Don’t you want your dinner? You need to keep your strength up if you’re going to win your game.’
‘Match,’ he corrected her, sleepily.
‘Whatever. Dinner’s on the table and getting cold.’
Dinner was unprepossessing. Lukewarm soup, followed by fish fingers, peas and jacket potato and finished with a scoop of ice cream with a couple of wafers. Mrs Winky looked tired and Daniel wondered whether the magic had fatigued her. It had certainly exhausted him, and the cat, apparently. After the meal, he stumbled back upstairs intending to continue practising for a few hours, but found himself unable to concentrate. It was all he could do to set his alarm clock before tumbling back into bed and sleeping the night through. The cat was still beside him on the bed, having not even stirred when he had risen for dinner.
The landlady appeared to be back to her usual form by breakfast and hummed tunelessly as she brought the tea and toast in. Tiddles had evidently revived too, and was nowhere to be seen.
‘Big day, today then, young man.’ Mrs Winky nodded at the cat’s paw thumb.
Daniel nodded back. ‘Yes. The first rounds start at eleven sharp.’ He looked at his hand dubiously. ‘Are you sure nobody will notice?’
‘The glamour’s a strong one. Nobody is going to see, unless somebody tells them.’
Daniel had originally intended to walk the two miles to the competition venue, but thought better of it, afraid of another accident, and took a bus. The driver seemed unusually tanned for the time of year and whistled cheerfully as he drove.
An old man with a poker straight back and military moustache leaned forward and murmured in Danel’s ear: ‘Got one of them fangled sunbeds, if you ask me. He was white as a sheet yesterday, now look at him, looks like he’s spent three weeks in the Bahamas. And he’s carrying on with a woman old enough to be his grandmother. Shocking if you ask me.’
Daniel hadn’t asked him and treated him to an irritable silence. He needed to psych himself up for his game, not be accosted by gossip mongers. The old man subsided into his seat and said no more until the bus pulled up to take on another passenger, an elderly lady with a deep suntan. She and the driver exchanged pleasantries and he waited for her to hobble to her seat before setting off. The old man nudged him again.
‘Look at that! No wonder these buses hardly ever run on time. They can scarcely keep their hands off each other. Shocking if you ask me.’
Daniel was not a gossip by nature, it was a waste of valuable concentration and in any case, he had seen nothing scandalous in the behaviour of either the driver or the old woman. Their colouring was the only thing the two seemed to have in common. He turned to the old man and said: ‘I’m not at all interested in what people in this town do, or don’t do. It’s none of my business – nor yours if you ask me!’ He was not disturbed again.
The competition hall was crowded and there was a general buzz of excitement. Daniel stood in line to register, keeping his right hand in his pocket until it was his turn to sign. He glanced at the faces around him as the cat’s paw curled around the pen. The expressions did not change. Nobody had noticed. Mrs Winky’s glamour had worked. He offered a silent prayer of thanks and strode over to the practice area and flipped a couple of shots. The precision he achieved was greater than anything he had ever managed. He decided not to tire the paw and sat down in the auditorium to await his first match.
The day flew by all to quickly. Far from tiring, the cat’s paw seemed stronger than his own thumb had and retained its accuracy throughout the tournament, bringing him through triumphantly. Daniel was so excited when he accepted his Trophy cup and prize money that he almost allowed the claws to extend when he shook the hand of the dignitry presenting it to him. Then people were clapping him on the back and congratulating him. Daniel took it all in good part, grinning like a fool and being more sociable than he had been for a month, relieved now that it was all over. His only regret was that Tiddles had not been present to witness the glorious result of his generous act. He read the inscription on the silver cup over and over again. British All-comers Champion. Soon his name would be engraved on one of the small metal plates that surrounded the base, alongside former winners. Daniel thought he might burst with pride. The woman he had beaten was standing beside him, clutching the runner-up shield and smiling broadly. She turned to him.
‘That was a fine match. It’s no disgrace to lose to someone as good as you. I suppose you’ll be going on to the European circuit now? And then there’s the World Championship. I’d say you stand a very good chance of winning.’
Daniel was a little taken aback. He hadn’t thought beyond the National Finals.
World Champion. The possibility set up a hunger in the pit of his stomach.
World Champion. Then he remembered the cat’s paw. It had to be returned, or the Three Fold Law would come into force. He had agreed to be bound by it. Somehow, the prize in his hand no longer seemed so shiny and special. He did not want to chat any more and pushed his way out of the hall.
World Champion; he could have been World Champion. The hunger turned to anger.
World Champion. What rights did that damn cat have anyway – it was only an animal for heaven’s sake! Cats lived quite happily with only three paws. That was a known fact, so why should he have to return this one. Without his thumb, his life was ruined. In any case, that woman at the guest house had known about the dangerous state of the old bus stop and had failed to mention it until it was too late. It was her fault really that he had been injured. All she had to do was say: ‘Mind out for the old bus stop; they made a mess of taking it down when Waldorf Street bus station closed.’ If he’d known, he wouldn’t have had the accident in the first place.
World Champion. She had wrecked his chance of being World Champion. He started to despise her. Her and her stupid cat.
By the time Daniel had managed to get out of the hall, he had begun to really hate the two of them. He had also decided that he would not return the paw. It was his now – possession was nine tenths of the law, that was what his father always told him and it was true . In any case, the sorcerers’ Three Fold Law could only be enforced by the injured party, and what chance did a three-legged cat stand against him?
None – especially if he never saw him again.
Leaving the hall immediately after the presentation had lent Daniel valuable time. Time he must not waste. They would not expect him to be back at the guest house for another hour yet, and then there was the journey back, another half hour. His train ticket was in his pocket, so there was no need to return at all. He did have a twinge of guilt about his unpaid bill, but the old woman could sell the clothes he had left there and his alarm clock. That would probably cover it. He had conveniently forgotten that his clothes were neither new nor remotely stylish and were worth a little less than nothing. Equally, he had bought his alarm clock for a couple of pounds at a seaside market and it had seen better days. As far as Daniel was concerned, though, his idea was eminently fair and reasonable and he boarded his train with an easy conscience, glad that he had not got around to filling in the guest register on his arrival. Mrs Winky had not been particularly bothered about this, he assumed that she had been happy not to have to put his money through her accounts. The money he had not paid.
Over the next few nights, his sleep was troubled by dreams of a large three-legged cat that was pawing at the windows and doors of his home, trying to get in. Several times he awoke in a cold sweat and stumbled around from room to room in a sleep torn haze checking latches and locks. Eventually, though, he realised that a dream cat could do him no harm and grew accustomed to the interlopements; his dream self even chasing the creature away.
Soon enough, he had no time left for bothering about his dreams as the European championship drew closer. And finally arrived. In spite of his broken promise, the cat’s paw thumb continued to perform perfectly and he took the cup home in triumph to await the big one.
Time hung heavily on his hands. Practice was no longer necessary. The paw was so responsive that flipping a couple of shots five minutes before each match proved perfectly adequate and he was still nervous of tiring it. Daniel decided to build a new shelf for his trophies. He got no further than buying the wood, however as he was afraid of injuring his thumb whilst sawing or hammering, so the trophies continued to stand, clustered together on the small shabby coffee table beneath the sitting room window.
The championship was only two weeks away when a fire swept through the building where it was to take place. Daniel watched on his ancient television set that he’d bought second hand for five pounds, as the flames licked around the building. The on-the-spot reporter, Flip Cupper was standing in front of the conflagration. Her glamorous appearance and dulcet voice seemed oddly inappropriate as she cooed into the camera.
‘Police wish to interview a man who was seen running away from the building a few hours ago. He is described as black, well over six feet tall, with an athletic build. He was wearing …’ As Flip Cupper spoke, the building gave an audible groan. She turned round, suddenly lost for words and watched silently while the walls seemed to fold in on themselves, leaving the rubble in three neat layers and sending up a plume of blackened dust which coated everything and everyone in the vicinity; including Miss Cupper.
A week later, Daniel received a letter from the international ruling body informing him that due to unforeseen circumstances a new venue had been selected for the championship. His heart sank. It had been decided that the competition would be held in England, in Basford, the town that had hosted the British championships. It went on to say that a room had been reserved for him at the Wavy Palms guesthouse on the outskirts of the town. The organisers apologised for any inconvenience, but that most accommodation was already fully booked and arrangements had had to be made at unusually short notice. Daniel wrote back immediately and told them that he would not be staying in the town overnight and to cancel his booking immediately.
He spent the whole night pacing his living room floor, wondering if they had passed his address on to Mrs Winky. She had to be at the bottom of all this. How could he have been so stupid! A woman who could fix a cat’s paw onto his hand by magic was more than capable of running to ground someone who reneged on a deal. Suddenly the threefold law seemed very frightening indeed. He would have to drop out of the competition.
But – World Champion. He was in with a real chance.
He would go and talk to her. Yes, as soon as the contest was over, he would take the thumb back. He would take the thumb back and take her a really big box of shortbread. She had expressed a fondness for shortbread, hadn’t she? Yes, he was sure she had. She was a decent person – not malicious, and the cat liked him. All he had to do was lay low until the contest. Wait in that little alleyway behind the competition hall until it was his turn, then win his matches, get the trophy, and visit Mrs Winky. He was feeling better already. She would understand. She knew how much it meant to him to win, she wouldn’t hold it against him.
And when he’d returned the thumb, the Three Fold Law wouldn’t be able to come into effect. He would be safe.
* * *
Flip Cupper stood in front of a cordoned off area behind a building, where something lay under a tarpaulin. Her beautifully coiffed hair and perfect make up everything her fans had come to expect. She opened her perfect mouth to begin her report, but was cut short by a bus that trundled noisily along the road between Ms Cupper and her camera. The only passengers, a young blonde haired woman and her baby, stared curiously out of the window at the camera. Flip Cupper took the opportunity to flick a tiny speck of grime off her whiter than white suit. A large black tom cat settled comfortably on the top of a nearby wall and watched the proceedings. The camera man gave her the signal and she started her report:
‘A man was found dead in a bizarre killing which took place just a short time ago only a few yards from where I am standing. Police are appealing for witnesses. We understand from a witness who found the body that the body has been flattened out and folded into three equal pieces, though police will not confirm this. All they will say is that the victim may have been an entrant in the World Tiddlywinks contest taking place today in the town and that his right thumb is missing. A man the police would like to interview was seen nearby shortly before the body was discovered. He is described as black, well over six feet tall with muscular shoulders – possibly a professional body builder. One hand, the right, is missing from just above the wrist. Police say that clothes similar to the ones witnesses saw the man wearing have been found beside the body, indicating that the killer might have been carrying a change of clothing with him to help him elude capture.’
As the report ended, the black cat lifted his right paw and groomed it thoroughly before jumping down from the wall and walking off in the direction of Waldorf Street.
Copyright 1999 Sue Phillips. All rights reserved.
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|Reviewed by Carol Chapman
|I got blindsided by the ending, and I am a punnish person by nature - great read, in fact fantastic story, I loved it.
|Reviewed by Brett Pransky
|The Threefold Law-nice play on words. I had fun reading this. A nice mix of humor and suspense. I liked that I did not guess one thing that was going to happen, the old lady being a sorceress, the cat paw thumb, etc. The only thing I did guess was that he would keep the paw and pay for it, but that just made it more fun. I like your style.|
|Reviewed by Erin Kelly-Moen
|Oh my goodness, I wasn't quite expecting that ending... Strange, wonderful, actually, how the first 3/4 of the story were so peaceful, connivial and content...he was loaned something important, kept it, only a few weeks. His mind changed, an almost brutal indifference emanates, doesn't seem truthful about his return-the-paw plan, then, whammo! Ha, though I was discomfitted at first, it flares with poetic justice! Brilliant, Susan! Once again, that matter-of-factness I noted in 'The Shoes' creates some sort of hypnotism within the reader, there's a unique flow and cadence. Fascinating, I love your style! You made it seem normal a man could use a cat's paw for a thumb... Enjoyed this immensely! :)|
|Reviewed by Mr. Ed
|A most interesting story, indeed! Enjoyed it very much.|
|Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado
|terrific write, susan, enjoyed reading! (((HUGS))) and much love, your friend in texas, karen lynn. :D|
|Reviewed by Claywoman
|Susan! this is great! You had me captured from the beginning to the end!...hehe|