Jack looked around the club. There was no sign of the cat lady anywhere. Oh well, he thought, easy come, easy go. Cats love to tease dogs. He decided to go back to the quiet room. Maybe she would be there, and if she was not then perhaps he could find out something about the runaway Panda. There was no point staying in the dancing room, the noise was too loud for conversation.
The plush room was more animated now, with the seats mostly full of furries engaging in what looked like the most fascinating discussions. Others stood around, chatting away, or perhaps they were flirting. It was hard to tell. Devlin was at least glad that the furries were not all staring at him anymore. Perhaps the cocktails they all seemed to be drinking were making them less interested in eyeing up the new dog in the pack. But there was no sign of the cat-lady.
He made his way to the bar, and ordered another brandy alexander. In for a penny he thought, all thoughts of the terrible effects such a rich drink might have on his digestive system banished to the back of his mind.
"You're new here, aren't you?" said a man in a horse-suit – no, a donkey suit – who had come up to bar to order drinks while he watched the raccoon throw his drink together.
"I am, yes", replied Jack. "Is it that obvious?"
"Well, I couldn't help but see you order that pint. No one drinks pints here, It's not the done thing".
"I see that now. And you, you're a regular?"
"Oh yes, very much so. You never get a night in the Zoo without Old Ned".
"How long have you been coming here?"
"Ah now, that would be telling! But come now, my friend, why not join my table over here? I'll introduce you to the gang".
Why not? thought Jack, walking with the donkey as he carried a tray of cocktails over to a table around which a group of furries were ranged. Two women in what he thought might be guinea-pig suits sitting on a sofa insisted that he squeeze in between them. Their costumes were far less figure-hugging than the cat-lady's (or, at least, he hoped they weren't).
The donkey ran through the names of the two guinea pigs, a cow (who, confusingly, seemed to be male), a rabbit, a horse, another dog, and a man in a rather different catsuit to the cat-lady's. Jack immediately forget all their names, just as he was asked for his. "Fido", he replied. The other dog guffawed. "What a common name!"
Devlin was trying to think of a response more cutting then "Up your lad" when the horse riposted "You can hardly talk, every second dog here is called Bob or Bobby".
"With me Bob is just an abbreviation", retorted the dog, "For I am Bramshaw Bob, gold medal winner at Crufts!" He looked very pleased with himself.
"It's not the quality of your name that counts", interjected the cow sonorously, "but how you build a reputation for yourself. That is something that can only be achieved through continuous hard work and application, something that I am no stranger to. Thus I am well known throughout our circle as a cow of great discernment and wisdom"
"Oh he is a one!" said the Guinea Pig to Jack's right, while the other chuckled in a worrying manner.
"So", said Jack, trying to steer the conversation in directions that he hoped would prove more profitable, "You have all been on the scene a long time? It's my first night here"
"Oh we all know that!" said Bramshaw Bob, "We saw you drinking Guinness!" He said it like it was urine or some other equally foul liquid that no right thinking person would drink in public. Jack found himself taking a real shine to this mutt.
"And we saw you talking to Tiddles", said the horse, with what Jack thought might be an air of innuendo in his voice. "She likes the new ones". This provoked some mirth among the animals.
"So you know her as well?" said Jack.
"Oh we all know her" chipped in Bob. The guinea pigs were in such paroxyms of laughter that Jack felt like he was being put through a mangle.
"I see. I was asking her about an old friend of mine, someone who had first introduced me to… to this whole thing, you know what I mean. Maybe you know her too? She used to tell me about how she would come here, and made it all sound so magical. I used to dream about coming here myself, but wondered if I would ever pluck up the courage to reveal myself as the… as the dog I really am. But now, yes, I have plucked up the courage, and here I am".
"Well done, sir, well done", said the cat, whose accent sounded English. "And is she here, this inspirational old friend of yours?"
"I haven't seen her yet. I don't know if she comes to the club much. It's a long time since we've talked, but I heard she got married – to another of her kind. I think they may spend a lot of time at home together, you know what I mean".
"When I'm at home I like to eat my carrots", the rabbit pipped in helpfully.
"We all have our favourite domestic pursuits", the cow declared, "but the noblest of all activities is industrious labour. I can tell you in a most unequivocal manner, that that is how I spend my time at home – in ceaseless toil, for as the Roman once said, laborare est orare. Not that I am particularly religious, of course, but you will understand the improving nature of my labours".
"I often find that I have to tidy up after you because you've left a terrible mess everywhere" said the rabbit. The cow turned his expressionless face towards his floppy eared friend, and the latter somehow sensed that it was time to be quiet.
"This friend of yours, Fido", said Old Ned, "it is possible we know her, both her and her husband. We animals are a gregarious bunch, mostly, and weddings are a great social occasion for us. What was your friend's name, and do you know what kind of animal she is?"
"Why yes", said Jack, "Her real… her human name is Laura, but I think she said that here she calls herself Miss Cuddlebuns. She's a panda, and I think her husband is called Mr Chubbytail. He's a panda… too".
Jack trailed off in what he was saying, because it seemed to be getting something of a reaction. With the animal suits, he could not read facial expressions, but from body language it was clear that what he had said had caused some upset. The animals went silent, and their plush faces turned blankly to each other. Jack sensed also that some of the furries at the neighbouring tables had gone silent.
"Do you know her? Or her husband?" he gamely continued.
"No, Fido, I can't say I do", replied Old Ned, deliberately. "I know no pandas", concurred the cat. The others seemed uncertain whether it was necessary for them to also confirm their lack of panda acquintance, but then the rabbit threw in a somewhat contrary position.
"I knew a panda once – " he began, before being unsubtly given a dig by the horse. The rabbit lapsed into silence, lowered his head and looked at the ground.
"So, no one knows any pandas?" Jack queried, again.
"We do not know the pandas", replied Bob emphatically. "Let us trouble ourselves no more with this subject. You there, Raccoon!" he called to the bar. "Fetch us more drinks, can't you see we are dying of thirst!"
After that the animals resumed their conversation, largely ignoring Jack and preventing him from questioning them or the rabbit again about the pandas. They did at least throw him another brandy alexander, which he sipped while wondering what it was about the pandas that had made them clam. They knew something, it was obvious, but they were not going to talk. Apart from the rabbit – Jack felt certain that if he got him away from the others he could worm something out of him. But there was no real chance of this happening. At one point the rabbit had to visit the toilet, and Jack took his chance to nip off after him, but the cat and the horse sprang to his side and more or less escorted him too and from the urinal.
The animals did at least keep plying him with drinks, but he knew his investigation waw going nowhere. And there was only so much of the furries' inane converstational one-upmanship that he could take. So he decided to call it quits.
"Well guys", he said, butting into an argument over whether Bob or the horse was the best read of the animals present, "it's been a lovely evening but I am getting a bit puppy tired. I'm heading home to my, eh, kennel. It's been great meeting you all, and I'm sure I'll see you again here real soon".
By this stage, he had had quite a bit too drink, a quantity of alcohol that could only really be identified as too much. He rather staggered towards the door, waving to the animals, missing the rather half-hearted farewells they threw back at him. The bear in the kiosk was still at his honey and did not seem to be aware of him going. Outside, there were some taxis parked in the hotel courtyard. Brilliant. The gorilla-suited bouncers helped him into the back-seat of one and generously buckled up his seatbelt for him. He barked out his address to the driver and the car sped off.
Devlin had a lot to think about. The marked reluctance of the furries to discuss the panda lady or even acknowledge her existence. The cat-lady and her sudden disappearence. In his drunken semi-stupor the events of the evening and the day before all started to merge into each other, and he started imagining the cat-lady showing up in a panda suit in his office, with all the other furries close behind.
He looked out the window, expecting to see the familiar landmarks of the city centre. But he was mistaken, and with a sickening mental thud he was jolted back into semi-sobriety by the realisation that the cab was not heading south into the city, but north – out into the wilds of north county Dublin.
"Hey! This isn’t the way to Rathgar!"
"No, Mr Devlin, it is not" replied the taxi driver, inclining his head slightly so that Jack could see him better. Oh my God, he thought, I'm a fool! Why didn't I see it until now? The taxi driver did not have a human head, or not one that Jack could see - the cab was being driven by a man in a badger suit