"Bloody hell bloody hell bloody hell!"
"'Teazer, will you shut it already? I can't hear myself freeze."
"I'm past freezin'! I think I'm startin' to feel like I'm burnin' up!"
"Maybe if you—agh!" Mungojerrie shrieked at the sudden gust of icy wind, huddling down into a tight little ball against the cobblestone ground in a vain attempt to keep warm until the gust had passed.
A few paces behind him, Rumpelteazer moaned dramatically. "It's too cold, Jerrie! Go on without me, save yourself!"
"A'ight. I'll remember you while I'm eatin' your leftover meat pies."
"Oi! Bloody wanker. Wait up."
Rumpelteazer hurried to join her brother, who'd managed to uncurl and continued to creep along the ground. There was barely any snow, save for a light dusting on the cobblestones of Victoria Grove, but the wind seemed particularly relentless for an early-January morning.
"Is it just me," she grumbled. "Or is this one bad, bad winter?"
"S'cold," Mungojerrie agreed, chancing to lift his nose into the frigid air, hoping to sniff out something or someone familiar. He was starving, and it seemed none of their usual acquaintances were open for business.
The Heart and Crown was up ahead; it shared a covered alley with the sweets shop next door, where many of the strays of Victoria Grove went to seek shelter, gossip, and companionship, but Mungojerrie was pessimistic about finding anything there.
"Nothin' at the Heart and Crown either, I betcha," Rumpelteazer sighed, as though reading his mind.
Sure enough, they rounded the pub's corner to find the usual wooden crates and empty boxes that served as furniture for the strays, but not a cat in sight.
"Where is everyone?" Mungojerrie muttered. "Maybe we oughta just go back to the junkyard. We got food there."
Rumpelteazer nodded glumly, butting against her brother for scant warmth. "I was lookin' forward to some Shrewsbury cakes. Junkyard's warmer though."
"Wanna try the Clocktower pub before we pack it in? Vin's always good for a bite."
"S'long as he's got a fresh pot of tea goin' on."
Trudging on against the wind, dodging the hurried footsteps of humans who were too chilly and bundled-up themselves to bother looking where they were going, the twins hurried along the frozen cobblestones until they'd reached the familiar sculpted wooden clocktower of the pub.
Mungojerrie stamped his paws and glared up at the Clocktower pub's closed shutter. "What's Vin thinkin', closing off the window like that?"
"I guess he doesn't feel like company," Rumpelteazer shrugged, huddling once again into a tight little ball.
"He always feels like company," Mungojerrie grumbled. "Oi! Vin! Where the bloody hell are ya? We're freezin' our tails off out here!"
The shutter popped open a crack, but the cat that peeled out wasn't the scruffy brown tom they were expecting; it was a long-haired caramel queen, who moved the shutter open all the way at the sight of the two and perched on the edge of the window to look down at them miserably.
"Oh. Hullo, Priscilla," Rumpelteazer sniffed. She'd never made it a secret that she disliked the queen. "You're not Vin. Is he around?"
Priscilla gave her a tight look and decided to address her brother instead. "Vincenzo isn't here. Oh, it's awful! I haven't seen him in weeks, 'Jerrie!"
"That's weird," Mungojerrie said. "Did he take off travellin'?"
"Lots of cats have gone missin', looks like," Rumpelteazer said. "Are they leavin' Victoria Grove for the winter? Or London?"
"No, you dolt," Priscilla huffed. She gave a furtive look around; there wasn't a single cat in sight, only two humans who, bundled-up as they were, hurried to pull open the door of the Clocktower pub and seek shelter inside.
Despite the lack of a single presence, Priscilla leapt down from the windowsill, pausing to glare as a gust of wind ruffled her fur.
She leaned in close to Mungojerrie and whispered, "It's him."
"Him? Him who?"
"You know who I mean," the caramel queen said through clenched fangs. "It's because of him that so many cats are gone. Macavity."
She said the name so lowly it was almost as though she'd only mouthed it. It was enough, though; as if on cue, Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer both shuddered and cast a quick look around. It was survival instinct; no cat in London went about chattering casually about Macavity.
"He took Vin?" Rumpelteazer whispered. "How? Why?"
"He didn't take him, exactly," Priscilla said. "You two dolts miss out on a lot, all cozy in your junkyard. Ever since that business with the magic queen and the kittens last year, things have been different around here, if you catch my meaning. Dangerous. Very dangerous."
Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer exchanged a quick, uneasy look. They'd learned, in the past year, that very few of the Victoria Grove strays knew the details of Macavity's kidnapping of the 'magic queen' and the kittens. Few knew where the queen came from, and none knew that the 'queen' in question was actually a tom: Mistoffelees, at the time pregnant with a litter of seven kittens.
Only the junkyard Jellicles had been privy to the fact that Macavity had orchestrated the kidnapping with the goal of getting his paws on the one magical cat who could bear him a litter of magical kittens of his own. Whether the magical cat was a queen or a tom made no difference to the Hidden Paw.
It was actually Vincenzo, the stray who had warned Mungojerrie in the first place, who'd helped lead Munkustrap, Rum Tum Tugger and Skimbleshanks to Macavity's lair in time to rescue and help a labouring Mistoffelees deliver the kittens safely. Over the past year and a half, the memories of the entire event had begun to fade, and life had returned to normal.
No one had been completely certain of Macavity's status— only vague talk of him attacking the junkyard, which alone served to indicate to the Jellicles that he was still alive and well after being attacked by a pregnant and panicked Mistoffelees' magic.
As far as the rest of London was concerned, no one knew what had become of him. Was he alive or dead? Still active, or had he run and hidden outside London? There had been rumours and whispers in Victoria Grove about Macavity's activities, but rumours were exactly that. This was the first time Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer had heard anything concrete.
"What you do mean by dangerous, Prissy?" Mungojerrie asked. "Anybody turn up… dead?"
Priscilla weakly shook her head. "Not exactly. Hard to say, mind. Rumour has it, some cats—the biggest, strongest, not always smartest ones—have been… recruited, you could say. But in the 'saying no isn't an option' sort of way, if you catch my meaning."
"He's recruiting," Rumpelteazer frowned, casting a quick look at her brother. "For henchcats?"
Priscilla gave her an irritated look. "Search me. Henchcats, some kinda army, target practice, who knows? But he's snappin' up every available tom and queen in Victoria Grove. And I can promise you, those who said no to him aren't exactly strolling back home to live on, business as usual."
"Bloody weird," Mungojerrie muttered.
"One day, Vincenzo was here, bein' all tender with me," Priscilla said. "Then some awful-looking stray comes knocking at the shutters. Said he needed to talk to Vin, alone. Said it was an important business proposition. Then just like that… I don't see Vin anymore. Gone. Gone to work for him… or worse, if Vin said no."
"Bloody weird," Rumpelteazer echoed. "Poor Vin! I hope he's okay."
"He's not the brightest," Priscilla sniffed. "But he's the sort M—he likes to keep around."
Another gust of wind made Priscilla whine, and made Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer shiver and huddle closer together.
The odd news alone was enough to make any cat shiver. Not only was Macavity alive, but also rebuilding after nearly a year of silence. For all they knew, Mungojerrie decided, Macavity was simply preparing to move out of London and on to bigger, better schemes. No sense worrying until they'd seen more signs of the Hidden Paw's plans, if any.
"All right," the caramel queen sighed. "I'm not Vin, but I guess I can bring you two in for something warm to drink. It's not safe to keep talking like this outside, in any case."
"Good!" Rumpelteazer brightened, thoughts of Macavity all but forgotten at the thought of finally thawing out. "I could use a hot toddy."
"Easy, 'Teazer," Mungojerrie said, following Priscilla and his sister back up to the still-open shutters of the Clocktower. "You turn into kind of an ogre when you drink, you know?"