Ditto danced around Katarina’s legs all the way along the side of the house until they were in the front garden. Katarina crouched in the shelter of a small tree and stared into the open front door. The men had left it open, perhaps as a warning to anyone else who dared do anything wrong – whatever that wrong was – a reminder of ‘look what will happen if you break the law’.
Even in the pale moonlight she could see that the house had been ransacked. Ditto streaked ahead of her and, crouching close against the wall, she slipped in after him. Inside, her feet crunched on broken crockery and slid on torn books. The furniture was overturned and house plants had been tossed aside as if a ferocious wind had howled through. But what were the men searching for? What would this harmless old lady have that they would see as a threat? She stumbled her way to a clearer patch near the hearth while Ditto wound around her legs, sniffing up at the plate of chicken she held close to her.
“Poor puss,” she whispered, putting the plate down and kneeling beside him. “What are we going to do?” The moonlight caught his sharp teeth as he bit hard into the chicken. He might survive by hunting, but perhaps her parents would let her take him in.
The plate empty, Ditto looked up at her. Then he moved his head forward and rubbed it against the edge of an upturned basket.
“Have you got an itch? Does this feel nice?” she asked him, reaching over and scratching the spot on his head where he had been rubbing.
Mrs Malcolm had kept a collection of pretty stones, bits of driftwood and dried flowers in the basket and these had now tumbled out onto the hearth rug, probably, she thought, kicked over in anger. She began to scoop them up and place them back in the basket. She moved a bunch of dried flowers and her hand grazed a large shell, probably once the home of a sea creature like the ones she had seen in books. She picked it up. It was cold and yet, as she held it, she sensed a faint vibration through her, a hum that grew stronger as it travelled up her arm and into the rest of her body, spreading through her veins, warming her.
Her eyes widened and she smiled, despite the awfulness of the devastation around her, despite the fear that beat inside her. She was tempted to switch on the light so that she could see this shell more clearly, but there could be someone watching the house. She stood up and started towards the window in the hope that the moonlight might be bright enough to see the shell. Then Ditto hissed. His body stiffened, he bent his back legs and turned and leaped away through the debris.
From somewhere outside Katarina heard voices. For a moment she was too scared to move, but she shook herself, seized the plate and, holding the shell close, ran to the door. The voices were somewhere in the front garden, getting louder, so she dashed down the hallway and into the kitchen, hoping to make it to the back door in time. But the top bolt on the back door scraped loudly when she pulled on it and she was sure she would be heard and that they would come after her.
She glanced around. The layout was the same as her house and she turned to the larder, darting inside and squeezing herself under a low shelf, thankful for once that she was still small and had not grown the way many of her classmates had. She hugged the shell. It comforted her, sending warm ripples through her body, making her feel that all was not lost – yet.
The larder door did not close properly and Katarina began to make out what the voices were saying. She did not understand what they meant. A light went on somewhere in the house, probably in the front room, and through the crack of the open door she saw the shadows of two men cast on the hall wall. The men were grumbling together. “I’m sure there’s something here,” said one, his voice sharp like a spike.
“Our men found nothing and you can see they looked!” The other was sullen.
“Your men know nothing. I’ve said before that you need more experts on the team. People who can hear what should not be heard.”
“Sometimes.” There was a pause. “There’s something here but I don’t know where. I think we should clear the house, take away some more of the old lady’s things. ”
“What? Now?” The tone was even more sullen.
“No. I’ll get the ministry to send someone in; you get your men to board up the house.”
Katarina listened as the men turned and crunched their way back through the room and out to the front door. She waited until she was convinced that they had gone, then rolled out from under the shelf and ran to the back door. The bolts screeched but she pulled them anyway and flung open the door.
The cold air slapped her in the face and took away her breath.
“What’s that?” shouted a voice, the sullen man. She backed into the doorway as a torch flashed up the path.
“There’s someone here!” he shouted again and his footsteps thudded on the beaten earth path.
Katarina backed further into the back lobby of Mrs Malcolm’s house, her heart beating so loudly she was sure it could be heard.
“Miaow!” A long howl made her almost cry out and she heard the ‘thwack’ and yelp of a man hitting the ground.
“It’s just a cat, you fool,” sneered the spikey man.
“I heard something, I…ow!” The man was obviously struggling back to his feet again.
“Is this what I have to deal with,” asked the other, a nasty laugh in his voice.
In the lobby Katarina allowed herself a small smile. She listened again. The footsteps, one of them dragging, began to move away. She waited. Ten, 15 minutes passed and she heard no more. She crept forward and peered out. Nobody. She ran, not looking back, down the path and in through her own backdoor. She did not pause until she was safe in her own bed.
Before she fell asleep she dropped the shell down the side of the bed, close to the wall.