Peter Morris was already dead when Theodore woke.
The dim hour before dawn was usually his favourite time of day. The birds are awake. Most cats are awake. Most people are asleep.
But this spring morning Theodore sensed something was not right. He blinked open his eyes and stretched. His ears twitched.
The birds tweeted. The pigeons cooed. A young German shepherd whined. A car engine started up a few streets away. In the distance a train rumbled on its way to Leeds.
It sounded like any other morning. But why then did he feel something was not right?
He stirred from Emily’s side. In the grey light he padded downstairs. He glanced at his food bowls. It would be at least an hour before they were filled. He exited through the cat flap, out into the yard.
He arched his back. He stretched out his paws. The hairs along his spine bristled.
A light breeze blew from the south. He tasted the damp morning air.
His own scent dominated the yard; he made sure of that. The potted herbs at the bottom of the boundary wall he sprayed on a daily basis. He caught whiffs of other cats from adjoining ‘shared’ territories. He took in the fragrance from what flora grew in this urban environment, laced with the stench of human-generated waste that lay decomposing in rubbish bins and split bin liners. He made out the faint smell of cocoa hanging in the air.
He renewed his scent in a couple of locations before jumping up onto the boundary wall and making his way to the back wall.
He picked his way across the clematis, his ears twitching. He crossed the concrete plinth that spanned the back gate. He continued along the back walls, down the hill, until he was standing diagonally across from the house with the pigeon loft.
The house was on the corner of an access road to the back alley. The pigeon loft was fixed high up on the back gable wall. The yard was surrounded by a six foot high brick wall. On top of the wall was a wooden trellis, eighteen inches high. A single strand of rusted barbed wire was suspended two inches above the trellis.
Set into the wall was a wooden gate, coated black with thick creosote. The gate was never left open. Certainly not at this early hour, thought Theodore. But this morning the gate was open a few inches. Wide enough for a cat to slip through.
Theodore looked up and down the back alley, then jumped down from the wall. He padded over the grey hexagonal cobblestones. In front of the gate he paused and looked up and down the alley. He noticed a stocky black cat at the crest of the hill. He recognised the black cat as Arthur, a tom who lived further up the hill. Arthur licked his paws in the long shadows, his back to Theodore.
He turned back to the gate and, without further hesitation, padded into the yard.
The yard was all concrete, with leaves, feathers and other windblown debris gathered in the corners and against the bottom of the walls. Against the back wall lent a folded stepladder. Theodore looked up at the pigeons perched on the eaves of their loft, cooing excitedly.
He circled the yard. He looked up at the pigeons. They cooed down at him: a provocation to Theodore. He miaowed back up at them.
‘You can’t get at us. You can’t get at us,’ they called, their napes glistening green and blue in the early morning sun.
Pea-brainers, Theodore thought, and miaowed up at them with agitation.
Again he circled the yard, his tail straight up.
‘You can’t get at us,’ the pigeons cooed down. ‘You can’t get at us.’
The pigeon loft was of three-storey construction, with a pitched, felted roof. It was big enough to house five pairs of birds, eight on the lower floors and a pair in the attic. It measured about three foot by two and a half, taller than it was wide, and stood a foot proud of the red brick wall. Below the loft was fixed a security light that bathed the yard below in white, artificial light.
Theodore turned and noticed the door to an outbuilding. He approached and, in the shadows, made out a tartan slipper, its black shiny plastic sole facing him. He went closer, and that was when he discovered the body.
Peter Morris lay on his front. He wore brown corduroy trousers and a blue checked shirt, the upper part dyed maroon with blood. A dark pool extended from what had been his head, now a colourful mess of shattered bone, congealed blood and grey brain. Pigeon feed had spilled from an upturned sack. The little seeds coated the dead man’s head. It was more like some horrific dessert than a human head.
Theodore looked at the body with the same expression as he would a dead moth.
He had never seen a dead human before. His instinct was to turn tail and head home.