‘So, what’s the catch?’ Tove asks.
She is right to be suspicious; there is definitely a snag when it comes to Scanlon’s guarantee of protection.
‘The catch is, she’s sucking our profits through a giant silly straw,’ I say.
Follicle Farm has returned to normalcy owing to the absence of pluck squad raids. But something else bothers me. The big cheese pays us a pittance, so tightening rations to feed the throngs of new recruits arriving every week has become mandatory. Tove is the head of nutrition; she sources unadulterated oats and quinoa from local gardeners for us to eat with our home-grown vegetables, and she fiercely guards our stocks, checking the bulk bags of flour, grains, dried fruit, and nuts to make sure no one is secretly syphoning extra calories. She grunts as she heaves a sack of almonds onto the industrial scales. ‘Nuts, nuts, nuts. Well, these are all accounted for.’
I hear a clattering down the hallway. Someone is making a ruckus in our bedroom, and not the good kind.
‘What was that?' asks Tove. ‘Go and see, will you?’
I lean on the doorjamb and watch as Mace rifles through my bedroom like a distressed baboon, throwing open the cupboard and searching its shelves. ‘Bingo.’ He sits down and unfolds my laptop, groaning as the password screen boots up, and pummels the keys like a failed stenographer wreaking revenge on any keyboard in sight.
‘Having trouble?’ I ask. ‘Try, Mace-is-a-bozo.’
He gasps and clutches his chest, which is odd, because he’s usually impossible to startle.
‘What are you up to, weirdo?’ I ask.
He cocks his head, his ears visibly pricking up at the hum of a vehicle arriving outside. ‘Crud. She’s here!’
He kidnaps my laptop and rushes past me to the porch, where he holds it to his chest and stands waiting.
‘Who’s here?’ I shout after him.
Mace being so agitated makes me worry about what’s going on, but when Scanlon’s elongated ivory chariot glides into view, I think I have an idea. Gretzky must have run to her with his tail between his legs and whined about my cyber blackmailing.
She clambers out of her off-road limousine, and struts over to Mace. ‘Hand over the footage, idiot!’
‘I couldn’t find it,’ he says. ‘It’s password-protected.’
‘Useless,’ she barks. ‘Go and fetch Lux.’
That's my cue to saunter outside, arms wide in greeting, and give the connoisseur of coiffure a taste of my phoniest hospitality. ‘Ariadne, darling’ I say, ‘How nice of you to stop by. It’s always a pleasure to host you, our generous benefactor.’
‘Shut up.’ She rolls her eyes at me. ‘Seat,’ she hisses at her hair nanny, and at the push of a button, the limo boot opens and a padded throne unfolds itself. Scanlon sits down and begins some type of breathing exercise to calm her quick, harsh breaths. The hair nanny wraps her in a scarf and offers her a steaming hot beverage, which she clasps her fingers around. ‘Enough of this foolishness, Lux,’ she declares in an even tone. ‘You work for me now, and you are going to apologise to the director of the water board.’
‘On the contrary, I think he needs to be taught a lesson. Engaging in sadomasochistic hair rituals is not good for one’s public image.’
Scanlon hurls her drink at me. I dodge the hot liquid, which merely splashes my boots. It occurs to me that she’ll go to any lengths to maintain the status quo because if the public’s water remains tainted, she'll be able to peddle hair endlessly. I'm beginning to suspect that Mace is of that mindset, too, after finding him rummaging through my things. It's not pleasant seeing him sucking up to the profit vampire like this.
Scanlon holds her tea cup out to the nanny and demands a refill. I keep my distance and prepare to drop the bomb. She can only score organic hair grown by free-range humans from us at Follicle Farm. If we relocated, she’d lose access to the exclusive, premium product that upholds the illusion of her eliteness. She’d be chided by her posey friends for relying solely on the output of her factory farms, telling her that ‘inorganic is so déclassé.’
‘Tell Gretzky to face the music himself. Otherwise, this shepherd will be herding his flock of free range humans to another pasture,’ I say.
Scanlon’s tea goes down the wrong way, and she hacks into a handkerchief. ‘Now you’re threatening me?!’
‘Correct. You need me more than I need you.’
It's a ruse. I'm sure if she hadn't calmed them down, we'd be inundated with hair haters. I stand my ground as she searches me for weaknesses with her grey eyes. She sighs heavily, lifts a phone from inside the limo’s boot, and dials.
‘Gretzky! No, just listen, you freak. Be a good boy and do as Mr Brovak says and change the water additive. I don’t want to see your face at Club Hairotica ever again. Our connection is severed.’
She hangs up the phone. Jackpot.
Do as you are told, Gretzky; open wide and take your medicine.
The stray cat I rescued from near the water plant is a prolific mouser; every day she adds a mouse to the deceased lineup on the porch, or ‘the morgue,’ as we’re calling it now. The engraved pendant on her collar bears the maxims ‘My name is Patch,’ and ‘Free to grow fur’. I open the locket and find a cryptic message inside, ‘Abandon soap, all ye who enter here’. Abandon soap—is that some sort of clue? Harlan’s run-down laundromat comes to mind. Surely they can’t be hinting at that? But I do get the impression that whoever is behind the message carried by Patch intended it to be found and that the clue is bound to lead somewhere.
I take Patch’s collar with me into the city with no plan other than daydreaming during the train ride to put solving the clue on the back burner. Whether it’s out of habit or a lack of better ideas, I arrive outside the old laundromat. It looks the same as when I was here cashing in my first hair haul with Mace, except the scanner above the door has been ripped clean off.
It doesn’t appear that anyone is around, but then again, it never does, so I knock and wait. A small woman emerges, and eyes me through the glass for a while, as if weighing me up.
‘Patch,’ I say, presenting the cat collar and hoping it bears some significance. She opens the door, but keeps it on the chain. ‘Abandon soap, all ye who enter here,’ I add.
‘Yes,’ the small woman says, and two large women come out of nowhere and pull me into the shady room. They cuff my hands behind my back with a zip tie and lead me down to the basement. It is filled with veterinary equipment. There are a dozen or so people lounging on beanbags, and probably twice as many cats, whose collars are being loaded with tiny scrolls of paper like the one in my hand.
‘One of our messengers has been picked up,’ the small woman announces.
‘Which one?’ inquires a chubby lady snuggled in the biggest beanbag in the middle of the room, which serves as a casual command centre. Barb Wyatt, Chief of Operations, is engraved on a plaque on her coffee table.
‘Patch is safe at my place,’ I say.
‘If you’re telling the truth,’ she says, ‘and you are willing to risk persecution in order to take care of a hairy stray, then I consider you an ally.’ She signals for the large ladies to cut my zip tie with a carpenter’s knife. ‘You are the first to find one of our messages. What brought you here other than curiosity?’
‘I have a hunch—or a hope—that you are in the process of decontaminating the food supply.’
‘Well, the pet food supply. But you are astute, aren’t you?’
‘I think that we share some common goals. Maybe we could work together on the human food supply.’
‘Oh no, I’ve had enough of them. But meeting a generous soul like you has done something to improve my outlook on humanity, if only a fraction.’
‘Removing pollutants from our nourishment will restore people to their natural, aware, and giving selves. I run an organic hair farm, and I’ve seen it happen within my own community. If you aren’t convinced that we should work together, then you should come and meet them.’
‘Maybe I will. Do any other resistance groups exist?’
‘I don’t know of any others.’
‘Think of it this way: if you restore every feline to their righteously furry selves, how are you going to protect them from the authorities or even the bigoted citizens that would abuse them? You have to effect change on a human level to sustain your vision of a paradise for cats.’
‘He’s got a point,’ the small lady with the beady eyes says.
Barb adjusts her beanbag and sits up straight. ‘You’ve got a point. I hadn’t thought that far ahead.’
‘What do you say that we make a pact to roll this hairy boulder all the way up the hill ?’ I ask.
Barb and the dozen women dressed just like her in work dungarees and glasses cheer in agreement and tend to their cats with renewed relish.
‘Superb!’ I tell her. ‘All I need now is confirmation that Gretzky is going to take his medicine like a good boy, and then things can really get started.’
‘Gretzky?’ Barb asks. ‘Who’s that?’
‘Potentially our most effective marionette,’ I tell her.
Mr Lux Brovak,
Being at the mercy of a hippy scumbag, with no choice but to commit light treason is a fate less than ideal. It is, however, preferable to imprisonment. You’ll be pleased to know that a chemist friend has concocted a formula with maltodextrin and potassium sorbate. These flavourless and odourless compounds create a silky consistency when diluted, just as the old ‘chemical sludge’ did when mixed into the supply. The water board has approved the new formula, but don’t gloat just yet. Hold off on your campfire orgies, your patchouli-scented farts, and your disgusting hair worship, because you, my friend, will not get away with this. I will stop at nothing until I bring you down.
Water Board Director,
I’m not exactly quaking in my boots. The man is neutered now. He’s got nothing on me. I can bring him down at the push of a button. But credit where it’s due, he took his prescription, if reluctantly, with a teaspoon of maltodextrin.
The long-dormant follicles of the citizenry are so close to being awakened. I am aching with anticipation! The consequences of them having pure water are too marvellous to grasp; too magnificent to envisage. The potential for change is overwhelming. Who will these slovenly, apathetic, downtrodden people turn out to be?