Shawn couldn’t believe it when he was robbed by a gang of cats.
At first they were just six adorable fluffballs who came to see him from the gaps between the houses on his way home.
Then they spoke.
“What’s in the bag buddy?” The voice seemed to come from within Shawn’s head. He looked around. “Down here, whiskers and the black eyebrow markings. I’m talking to you. What’s in the bag?”
Shawn looked down at the tubby white cat. It had two diagonal lines like eyebrows above each eye. They made it look angry. “Me?” Shawn pointed to himself. He looked around again for the person throwing their voice and probably recording the whole thing for the internet.
“You see any other bipeds wandering around with bags that smell like fish? One last time. What’s in the bag?” The six cats took position around Shawn in a perfect hexagon of furry adorability. Only their leader’s markings gave a hint of anything menacing.
“My shopping,” said Shawn in a high-pitched voice he hardly recognised as his own. “I’m making tuna burgers for dinner.” He clutched the hemp bag tightly as a paw struck his calves.
“Not anymore you’re not.” The voice was deep, commanding. That voice belonged to a man who would tower over Shawn and no doubt be as wide. “Hand over the fish.”
“You’re talking. Except you’re not talking.”
“I’m going to count to three Shawn. I want that fish on the ground before I get to three or you’re going to be in pain.” The large cat managed to look down its nose at him despite the fact that its head was below his knees.
“It’s my dinner. I can’t afford to give food away. I just lost my job.” Shawn’s voice was breaking all over again it seemed. If someone was recording the shake down, then hopefully the internet fame would make him some money.
“One,” said the big cat, slowly and deeply into his mind.
Shawn tried to step past it and felt the weight of two cats hanging off the back of his jeans. Two became three as their claws began to tear through his flesh.
He walked past the white cat as its siblings clawed their way up his body. He clutched the tote bag tighter as snarling faces with slitted yellow eyes looked up at him.
“Three. I did warn you, didn’t I?”
Shawn looked back. The white cat was gone. Standing in its place was a stout man with white hair that looked somehow wise and youthful at once. White jacket, trousers, and shoes. Thick black eyebrows creased into a frown.
“Now we take the fish, the rest of the food and your money. I warned you.”
Three full grown men wrestled the bag out of Shawn’s hand. Two brunettes in all black watched with menacing looks. As he looked at the men, one of the women patted him down and pulled out his wallet. She took the cash and threw the wallet at his feet.
“All we wanted was the fish, Shawn. You should have listened.”
Shawn’s shopping hit the ground as the fat white cat returned and strolled away with a chunk of wrapped tuna clamped in its jaws. The little black one, a girl, followed behind with his cash in her mouth.
“I’ll call the police,” he said as they started to disappear between buildings.
“You do that,” said a brown one with white patches looking back. “I’ll be sure to lick my arse and look cute while the officers are laughing at you or arresting you for wasting their time.” With that, the last of them was gone. So was his dinner and money.
Picking up his bag, Shawn saw that his fruits and vegetables were mashed into the hemp. Only the carrots looked viable. By the time he got home every one of the scratches was stinging as if burnt. Dousing them all with antiseptic made him swear with the fury of a nun possessed by childish demons.
He ate carrots and rice with soy sauce. He cursed his life and vowed revenge.
Shawn marched to the library the next morning. He had band aids covering half of his body. Some of them were leaking blood. Somehow six cats had amounted to the damage of playing with a tiger.
Magic was a well-known thing. Wizards were all over the tv. They ran Bollywood, Holyrood, Hollywood and Nollywood. They sold cosmetics that could literally make you look younger if you had the cash equivalent of a pyramid spare.
To his name Shawn had a library card and a collection of OVERDUE notices. He leafed through encyclopaedias which listed all known magical beasts from the kind of unicorns which had killed a reality star just years before to giraffes. Only hints of things were linked to cats. Egyptians had worshiped them. Duh. There were many gods around the world with feline appearance. Also duh.
Despairing for the ignorance of such a fundamental underestimation of felines he looked for revelation magic. It was the kind of crap that people on Youtube were using to uncover creepy old fuckers posing as younger men to lure women.
Some of it looked easy. Shawn took out some dog-eared volumes and wandered back to his flat. Another red underlined letter from the power company explained why the lights and sockets weren’t working.
Reading by the light of the streetlamps, he stayed up until the light of the sun helped his veiny eyes.
The doorbell woke him. He looked through the peephole. A muscular man with a teardrop tattoo and faded tribal designs on his arms was pounding on the door.
“I can hear you in there. I’m here to repossess your stuff to pay your fees.” The man’s sunglasses were Gucci, good for him.
“Careful. If you damage the door the landlord will be able to sue you.”
“I’m not going anywhere. You have to come out sometime.” The man looked stronger than he probably was, distorted by the fisheye effect through the peephole.
“Do you do everything in sleeveless tops, or just threaten people whose lives already suck?”
“Open the door.”
“Why. I’m in here. I have a toilet. How long can you stand there before you have to go? Want me to run the taps for you. That should make it easier for you to piss yourself trying to take my stuff.”
“It’s my job man. Let me in. It’ll be easier that way.”
“I don’t have to open the door for you. You’re not police. You know what else. I got robbed on the way home and I haven’t reported it to the police. If you don’t leave I’ll tell the cops you did it.”
“That’s bullshit. You can’t do that.” The tanned man with muscled arms that looked like braided hair was turning red.
“You’re here to take my stuff. Why shouldn’t I?” Why hadn’t Shawn been so brave against the cats the day before? “Think of running water. Waterfalls. Don’t you need to go yet? Well. I’m going to go and sit on the sofa that you’re not taking. You can sit on the stairs if you like. The metal on the edges makes them really comfy.”
Shawn left the repo man at the door and flung his curtains open wide. He’d finished a book on illusion. The easiest spell was to create the image of an apple in his palm.
He tried again.
“I wonder if he’s still there.” He peered through the peep hole and saw the gym bunny on the stairs outside on his phone. “Would you like a ham sandwich?”
“Yes,” said the big man, confusion in his blue eyes as he looked back at the door.
The fridge light didn’t come on of course. One slice of ham had dried at the edges in the packet. Two slices of bread that would be moldy in another day. No spread.
His phone was dead, with no way to charge it. Back to the books. He read about turning one thing into another. He tried to turn his dead cheese plant into a money tree. Reality said no.
The drawings were gruesome at times. Messing up your spells could go far worse than nothing happening. One man who’d tried to teleport himself had managed with his head alone and turned the rest inside out.
He wandered back to the front door. “Still there?”
“Yes. I’m not going anywhere,” said the increasingly growling voice of the titan.
“What’s your name?”
“Having a good day, Peter?”
On his millionth attempt to conjure the image of an apple Shawn managed to conjure something that looked more like a grain of rice dressed as a tomato. Progress.
“It’s a hot day today,” Shawn said. “Thank goodness I’ve got cold water on tap. Thirsty Peter?”
“I’m not talking to you.”
“That’s alright. The silence will help your ears pick up the sound of me sipping this crisp tap water. Ahh. So refreshing.” Seeing the frown on Pete’s face as he looked back up the stairs made Shawn’s morning.
Another million attempts at illusion conjured a red egg which was weeping green stuff. He ripped his hand away from the suggestion of light in the air.
Immortality was the most common pursuit in magic. It was also a closely guarded secret of the magic circles. The magic circles had apparently inspired the Olympic ring design. Each circle represented a continent of the old world.
The next image he conjured was straight from a drunken nightmare. The transparent apple the size of a human head had the topography of a wrinkled human face.
He looked up the spell to create a fake skull. It wasn’t that much harder than an apple, according to the master wizard who’d written the book after hundreds of years practicing magic.
Feeling down the back of the sofa Shawn found his ex’s hair, two pencils and twenty pence. It was better than nothing.
He looked at the contents of his wallet. Receipts for half paid bills. Receipts for pawned CDs, DVDs and sadly his much beloved Blu-ray collection. Three cards. Two credit cards which had been cut off by the companies because he owed hundreds. His bank card, which was well into the overdraft, for which he paid a daily fee?
Pete was still sitting on the steps outside. Shawn climbed down the drainpipe outside his window and walked down the pavement with his hood up.
Five minutes away was the supermarket he had worked at. Being made redundant because of the ‘last one in, last one out’ policy seemed fair to everyone who’d had years to save up for a rainy day. Not that he held a grudge. Being told he’d stacked shelves wrong wasn’t something he looked back on fondly.
The ATM swallowed his card. He showed it who was boss with his best insults and two middle fingers.
Twenty pence to his name, Shawn swaggered into his old place of work as if he owned it. Somehow having nothing gave him a swell of pride. All of those people with their job security didn’t know what life was about. He did.
He wasn’t delusional. Was he? No.
“Pete’s probably still sitting outside my door. Idiot.”
Shawn turned around. There he was. He’d looked rounder through the peep hole. Pete was seven foot tall if he was an inch. If he hadn’t competed for World’s Strongest Man, he was a fool.
Licking his hand, the destitute former shelf stacker wiped it down the man mountain’s face. “No please, I gave you all my money.”
Peter punched him.
From standing fully upright Shawn found himself on his back on the floor with the world spinning. People from all over the supermarket were crowding around to chant ‘fight’ or ask if he was alright.
“What are you doing?” Asked one of the older women, Martha, who had tried to show Shawn the correct way to stack shelves. She was due for retirement any day now. “You should be ashamed of yourself. You know that?” She stepped right up to Pete’s pectorals and glared up at him. Martha was a sweet little lady, but you didn’t mess with her.
Punch drunk, Shawn tried to stand. Onlookers had to catch him as he felt gravity throw him across the room. Usually, gravity was one of the few forces of nature that wasn’t out to collect with him. Gravity seemed to have reconsidered how long Shawn had been getting it for free.
Pete left the supermarket with people booing him as the debtor was helped to a seat. Blinking as if it would help, he accepted the conditional embrace of the chair. Gravity still wasn’t on his side, but it wouldn’t mess with Martha.
“Get him an ice pack someone.”
“Cats,” he said.
“What?” Asked the grey-haired woman, smiling sweetly. Shawn thought for a moment that if he were only forty to fifty years older, he’d be happy to have married her thirty years before. That wasn’t the concussion talking. He thought.
“Cats robbed me,” he said, trying to get the best of his tongue. It was bleeding.
“Get him some frozen peas, aisle six.” Martha pointed to one of the workers in their green uniform. “You’re going to be alright Shawn. You might be concussed is all. How many fingers am I holding up?”
“You’re beautiful.” He hadn’t meant to say it. He probably was concussed.
“Ooh, charmer.” She smiled. “Don’t make me blush. Now the most important thing is that you don’t sleep for half an hour.”
“What is it?” He opened his eyes. He was on the ground again. Some of the tables had been overturned. People were pushing each other to get out of the door.
Martha had been knocked out of her seat. He tried to help her up.
“Who the hell did that?” She asked.
“Some idiot just conjured a red skull the size of a beach ball right over your head. Sick. It makes me sick.” She looked around. “You must have had an awful day.”
“Not the best ever, no.” He rubbed the bump on his forehead from Pete’s knuckles.
“What were you saying about cats?” She asked. At the same time Shawn realised that the people leaving the café had abandoned food and he was very hungry.
“Do you think since they paid, I could eat what they left? I’m broke.”
Martha shrugged. “I don’t see why not. Are you going to be alright? I should probably get back to work.”
“Have you ever heard of cats turning into people?” He asked.
She stopped in her tracks and looked ready to sit down with him again. “I heard stories when I was a wee lass. There are myths in Japan that cats can transform into people and do awful things. We’d know though, wouldn’t we? With everything else, people would know. Anyway. I need to get back to stacking, Shawn. I’ll check on you in half an hour alright?”
“No problem, love.”
Shawn was evicted from his flat two weeks later. By that point he’d undergone a drastic weight loss. He declared bankruptcy and lived in the converted attic above his former bedroom. His father believed keeping Shawn’s childhood bedroom as a microbrewery would motivate Shawn to ‘get back on his feet faster.’
Instead, the twenty-something settled into the life of an attic dweller, reading magic books by the light of a single LED.
After one year of nothing but reading, practicing and masturbation, Shawn could summon illusions that covered the whole neighbourhood. He had to deny having any such ability when a man swerved to miss a tree that wasn’t there and hit a bin lorry that definitely was.
Walking down the same street where he’d first met the cats, Shawn carried a bag full of nothing but fish.
The gang emerged, some with new scarred ears. He laid his offerings before them and bowed.
“Why?” Asked the white one with black eyebrow markings.
“Because I just had a millionaire deposit his business takings in the back of my car thinking it was his bank. I could not have become who I am now without you.”
“Why does the fish smell of oranges? Cats hate oranges.”
“Because you robbed me, pricks.” Shawn walked away with an empty tote bag, a full wallet, and a broad grin. He was a criminal with no reasonable means of explaining his sudden wealth. But as one teacher had told him in school, find something you’re good at, that pays, and go for it.
That guy had been a condescending dick.