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Authors: Shirley Rousseau Murphy

Cat Telling Tales

BOOK: Cat Telling Tales
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Cat Telling Tales

A Joe Grey Mystery

Shirley Rousseau Murphy

Dedication

For all those who help lost and abandoned pets, who feed, shelter, and care for them, giving of their time and love.

Epigraph

Some abandoned cats adapt quickly to feral life, but others have great difficulty learning to survive outdoors. Often the newly strayed cat will look dirty and disheveled, fitting right in with the common image of the feral cat, while the feral cat will look clean and sleek because it's not spending all its time trying to learn how to survive. . . . Building a cat-owning consciousness that precludes abandonment is . . . within reach and being worked on throughout the humane movement.

—Ellen Perry Berkeley,
TNR: Past Present and Future: A History of the Trap-Neuter-Return Movement

1

T
he tomcat didn't believe in prophetic dreams, he didn't believe in insightful visions of future events or past events or whatever the hell that was that woke him yowling and clawing at the cushions with sweaty paws. It was the middle of the night, the sky outside the windows was clearer than the glass itself, the stars hung high and bright in their universe; the cool night was tucked around him as if to say that all was good, all was right with the world.

But he'd awakened frantic, still caught in the violent storm of his dreams; black wind driving rain at him so real that, rising up, he licked his paw expecting it to be sopping wet, expecting to have to lick himself dry all over.

That was a dream? What the hell was that?

He didn't mind lifelike dreams of, say, a rollicking hunt with his tabby lady, feasting on rats and gophers, happy dream-memories that did nothing more than enrich his restful sleep. What he didn't need was this kind of storm-filled nightmare so real he could still hear the wind howling. Didn't need this chilling experience of humans he didn't know, caught up in some violent personal battle, the dream's aura dark and so damnably loud that his poor cat head pounded and his ears still hurt: rain pelting down hammering a thin roof, two women shouting and screaming at each other with a terrible rage as rain beat against the thin walls of their little wooden shack, both women's anger elemental, irreconcilable.

Even in the stormy dark, he'd somehow known the shack stood beside a low hill that was flattened off at the top, a fence running along up there. That a small grove of trees stood below, some distance from the shack, sturdy saplings bent nearly double by the driving wind. He had a sense of several cats crouched at the base of the trees, terrified and shivering. Rain drove like hammers against the cottage, its drumming mixed with the women's shouts, and then he was inside the shack itself, the air cold and stinking of onions fried in rancid fat. A thin greasy light from a bare, overhead lightbulb, only a hint of warmth seeping from a square metal heater, the smell of butane fumes. An old woman, kinky gray hair, her wrinkled face screwed up with rage. The young woman slender, maybe in her twenties, her oval face flushed with anger, dark hair, long and wet and tangled, her brown eyes huge with vengeance. He could see a cot in the far corner, a child curled up beneath thin blankets into a miserable ball like a little animal, hugging himself against the women's rage.

“I didn't do any worse than they did,” the girl shouted. “You think just because I was—”

“You were stupid and foolish and now you're paying for it, now look what you've got. If you try to pressure someone like him . . . You don't know half what he's capable of. And your own sister—”

“I was doing just fine until you poked your nose in. If you'd left it alone—”


I
poked
my
nose in? I've kept a home for you when your own sisters won't have anything more to do with you, and who can blame them, after how you've behaved?”

“Why are you so mean! You don't care about me and the boy, all you care about is how things look, what people think. Where do
you
get all puffed up, living in this shack! An old drunk living in worse than a slum. You think
I
like living here?” She whirled around, crashed out through the warped door into the driving storm, the wind wrenching the door from her hand, blowing it in with a crash. Out in the turbulent dark another figure moved, easing deeper into the windy blackness as she passed, a tall figure, flapping dark coat torn by sheets of rain. The watcher lifted a hand but she didn't see him, she disappeared running hard into the storm, the rain almost horizontal, as powerful as water sluicing from a fire hose. Over the storm's pounding the tomcat heard a car start, its headlights blazed on, cutting through the downpour, in the dash lights he saw the woman's pale face, saw her jerk the wheel as the car took off skidding a geyser of mud up against the house. Behind her, a second set of headlights flashed on, a second car loomed out of the blackness skidding against the hill and then straightening, following her fast, its red taillights quickly lost in the driving rain.

The tomcat had awakened so suddenly, shivering from the storm, amazed to find himself dry and warm within his own cushions, looking out at the calm, still night from within his own cat tower. Safe in his own digs, blessedly alone in his personal tower atop the second-floor roof, its tall windows dry and free of any rain, its timbers strong around him, his pounding heart the only residue of those violent moments. He sat looking out at the calm night, thinking about the violence of the dream, the women's mutual hatred so real it had sucked him deep down into it, seemed to have left part of him still there with them, shivering with perplexed fear. What the hell was that, where the hell had that come from? It was more like a vision than a dream, an ugly message maybe portending a view of the future—or was it a look at the past, a glimpse of painful conflict that had already happened, and that he might soon have need to know and understand?

Except, he didn't believe in that stuff.

So-called visions had nothing to do with real life, what folks called psychic portents were nothing but make-believe, temporary derangement. Life was right here and right now. Life was fact, what you could see and smell, what you could touch with your whiskers or an outstretched paw. Life was what you
saw happening
or could figure out for yourself without any kind of cockamamie ethereal message. No one, cat or human, could call forth a future that hadn't yet happened. No one could see into a past he'd never witnessed.
That
was sure as hell nonsense.

Rising, he pushed out through an open window to the roof, onto the dry, rough shingles that no storm had touched this night. He sniffed the cool, fresh breeze, the homey scent of pine and oak trees, the iodine smell of the sea from ten blocks away, and the sweet stink of a skunk hunting for grubs in one of the neighbors' yards. He thought about the two women in the nightmare, tried to think if he'd ever seen either of them around the village.

The old one looked familiar, as if he might have glimpsed her now and then among the shops; Molena Point was small, it was hard not to know the locals. But the young, dark-haired woman was a stranger to him. Oval face, ivory complexion, cleft chin as if a dimple lodged there. A pouty mouth, a sullen, selfish look about her that, whatever the argument had been about, made Joe want to side with the older woman. When he thought too hard about the dream, his paws began to feel cold and wet again, his fear gauge to shoot right through the roof. But at last he tucked the nightmare away, shoved it to the far dark at the back of his feline thoughts along with other matters he didn't much care to dwell on, with incidents he'd bring forth into the light only if they were required.

But he slept no more, this night.

Leaving his tower, he prowled across the rooftops of the village cottages and shops, brushing among overhanging branches of the oak and cypress trees, peering into cozy second-floor bedrooms still dark and peaceful and into the occasional rooftop penthouse. Galloping up and down the steep roofs, he wondered if his footfalls woke anyone in the rooms below where even the patter of a squirrel might be heard by a light sleeper. And the dream ran with him, shattering his sense of what was real, almost made him question his own convictions. Prowling among the shadows of roof vents and warm chimneys, he watched the sky pale from deepest gray to its first predawn silver streaked with wisps of blood-tinted clouds and still he couldn't put the dream away, couldn't know if it was a prediction or some mysterious voice from the past—or simply damn foolishness? Badgered by futile questions, he snapped back to the present only when he caught the first smell of coffee from the cottages below and the aroma of frying bacon. As hunger jolted him back to reality, he spun around and raced for home, his soft paws pounding across the rooftops, thinking of breakfast. To hell with stormy mind games, with nighttime portents and with visions he didn't want, and didn't believe in.

2

T
he rising sun fingered in through the glass walls of Ryan Flannery's upstairs studio, and a fire burned on the hearth against the dawn chill. The brightening room smelled of fresh coffee from the pot on the big worktable where Ryan and Clyde sat surrounded by stacks of real estate ads and flyers. The lingering scent of frying bacon and waffles had drifted upstairs, too, mixed with a whiff of Joe Grey's breakfast kippers. He lay purring, stretched out across the mess of real estate come-ons, his hind feet anchoring a pile of foreclosure notices, his front paws idling with a stack of price lists and specs the couple had been collecting for weeks. Licking a bit of maple syrup from his whiskers, he marveled at the propensity of his two favorite humans to complicate their lives—they needed another falling-down cottage to renovate like he needed a bed full of hungry fleas.

Ryan had pulled a sweatshirt on over her jeans, its white fleece setting off her dark, tousled hair, her sea-green eyes and high coloring. Her Latino and Scots-Irish heritage had blessed her with the delicate beauty of both races—as well as the volatile temper of both, which, most of the time, she kept pretty well reined in. Across the table, Clyde looked a bit shabby this early morning in ancient, faded jeans and a colorless, threadbare T-shirt that, in the gray tomcat's opinion, had long ago been ripe for the ragbag. Beneath the soft lamplight, both were examining eagerly the color ads for the small, neglected houses spread across the table, as if each cried out to them with the insistent voice of temptation: Buy me, remodel me, make me beautiful again.

Clyde and Ryan had been married just a year next week, but nearly from the moment Clyde slid the ring on her finger and engulfed her in a bear-hug kiss, they'd celebrated their marital bliss by throwing themselves into buying run-down houses, taking advantage of the falling market to launch into the small but challenging remodel projects that were a sideline for Ryan, turning each dilapidated shack into a bright little home so appealing that, despite the economic downturn, it sold often within days of being listed. This, on top of her full schedule of new-house construction, indicated a form of insanity that could beset only the human mind.

Though maybe, Joe thought, Ryan's creative inner fire was, after all, somehow akin to the same burning drive that made a cat stalk, capture, and kill; maybe, indeed, the same single-minded kind of obsession and commitment. Looking around him at the studio Ryan had designed and built atop their home, he did have to admire his housemate's talents: The heavy wood beams of the studio and its three tall glass walls had turned what could have been a dull second-floor addition into a treetop aerie, the space skillfully tied into Clyde's adjoining study and the master bedroom beyond. Those two rooms, she had built some months before they were married, expanding what had been a poky one-story cottage into a spacious and imaginative environment.

As the sun lifted, the glass walls of the studio seemed to melt away, the surrounding tree branches to become even more a part of the airy room, mingling their shadows with the oak worktable, the computer desk and old drafting table, the long, antique storage cabinet with its wide, thin drawers that held Ryan's drawings and blueprints. In the far corner, two campaign chairs, fitted with deep blue canvas, faced the blue daybed where Ryan's big silver Weimaraner lay on his back, his four gray legs in the air, snoring, his upside-down rumbles soft and rhythmic. The little white cat slept curled against his shoulder, safe and trusting. Rock was Snowball's guardian, she felt deliciously secure under the big dog's stewardship.

Ryan, having given up her small apartment when she moved in with Clyde on their wedding day, had started constructing the studio the minute they arrived home from their honeymoon. Frantic for a place to work, she'd been just a bit cranky as she tried to complete the designs for two new houses and four remodels, place orders for materials, do her invoices and bookkeeping, all in the downstairs guest room where she'd crammed in her office furniture, while at the same time starting construction on the studio, and supervising three building crews. Those first months of marriage she had, in short, not been your typical lighthearted bride. Thank God Clyde could cook. Or life might have degenerated into an endless round of frozen dinners for the humans and, too disgusting to contemplate, canned cat food for Joe himself.

Now, since she'd moved into her comfortable new studio, you'd think she'd take a break, but no way. She and Clyde had bought and completed two remodel prospects and were burning to buy more. Joe tried to keep his opinion, and more scathing remarks, to a minimum; he made no comment now as they passed real estate ads back and forth, discussing the possibilities of each little house, its charms versus its drawbacks and weaknesses. Rolling over, he edged into a patch of sunlight that shone down through the clerestory windows; the bright shaft streaming past him picked out, as well, the carved antique mantel with its hand-painted tile insets, each bearing the image of a cat—cats whose history often perplexed Joe, their uncertain origin an aspect of life that sharply unnerved the tomcat, that told him more about his own ancestry than he cared to dwell on.

Ryan and Clyde had found the mantel while on their honeymoon up in the wine country northeast of San Francisco, in a musty antique shop, and of course they had to bring it home. They'd left for their wedding trip driving a borrowed Cadillac Escalade. Two weeks later they arrived home with Ryan hauling a trailer behind the SUV, and Clyde following in a large, rented U-Haul truck, every available inch of all three vehicles loaded with dusty relics unearthed from junk shops all along their way: six antique mantels, twelve stained-glass windows, old hand-hewn lumber, detritus from people's basements and attics and torn-down houses that fit right in with Ryan's remodel designs. Amazingly, Clyde had been just as hyped as Ryan over their cache, the onset of feverish love apparently affecting his mental health, generating this new obsession that replaced his erstwhile preoccupation with antique cars. Oh well, such was love, and the tomcat had settled in, to adjust to household changes that, while frenetically busy, were far cozier and more charming than the careless environ of their austere bachelor pad.

Now as the sun rose higher, its warming rays touched not only the cat tiles of the mantel, but the letter that stood on top, a small pink envelope propped against a stack of architecture books. A letter that seemed to Joe as insistent as a blinking neon sign, awaiting Ryan's attention, a missive he found both repugnant, and worrisome.

When the letter first arrived, in the regular afternoon delivery, he'd had no idea of the dilemma it would cause. The small, note-sized envelope, addressed in a clumsy and unskilled hand, seemed unimportant, hardly worth noticing as Joe pawed idly through the mail Clyde had left on the coffee table. The writing seemed to be a woman's, someone who had plodded through grammar school at a time when the teaching of cursive was out of fashion, a woman who had apparently spent her entire adult life still laboriously printing her awkward little messages.

There was no return address, and the postmark was too blurred to make out the point of origin. The envelope was directed to Ryan in her maiden name, Flannery, which she still used professionally, and not to Mrs. Clyde Damen, but it did not appear to be of professional content; it didn't have the polish of a business letter concerned perhaps with the design and construction of a new house or with the proposed requirements for some costly and extensive remodel. When Ryan had come in from work in her jeans and boots, and opened it, when she scanned the letter, her green eyes narrowed to a frown. She'd stood a moment rereading it, as if to make sure she'd gotten the message straight, her dark, short hair windblown and sprinkled with sawdust like the sparkles from some children's party. At last, making no comment to Joe or to Clyde regarding the contents, she'd turned away, carried the letter upstairs and left it on her studio mantel where it now resided, the open note folded atop the envelope, the corner of a photograph visible underneath. As if the message wasn't exactly private, but she didn't care to discuss it. Of course the tomcat had followed her and, when she went on about her business, had leaped up and read it for himself.

The message carried an aura of disaster, of bad karma, if you will, that made his fur twitch and his paws tingle with sharp misgiving. The fact that Ryan didn't want to talk about it was sign enough that the request was going to screw up their lives. What was really worrisome was that, though she'd set the letter aside, she hadn't ignored it to the point of laying it facedown and slapping a book over it, or dropping it in the round file. This unsolicited bid for bed and board would, sooner or later, require her dutiful response. Joe knew what answer
he'd
give, but he guessed Ryan wouldn't follow his advice. Social courtesy is a human trait that most cats don't consider of much value. Except, of course, when that courtesy is toward the cat himself.

Now he watched Ryan select a dozen real estate ads, and lay them out beside him. He flattened his ears when she propped three ads rudely against his gray flank as if he was some kind of cute copyholder. She gave him an innocent green-eyed look and scratched under his chin until his ears came up again, of their own accord, and he felt a purr rumbling. That was the trouble with Ryan, her charm got him every damn time.

Some of the little houses were so cheap the brokers hadn't bothered with flyers or color pictures at all, had simply placed small black-and-white newspaper ads. Some were tiny old guesthouses, behind larger dwellings, which had apparently been sectioned off into their own lots. Two of the cottages were foreclosures, three were bank sales, all had suffered dizzying drops in price, as the economy fell. But in Molena Point, even the bottom of the barrel was still of value, every bit of land on the central coast was at a premium, and oceanfront lots were as dear as gold, even the smallest parcel worth as much as some Midwest mansions.

But that didn't mean Ryan and Clyde had to snap them up like a cat snatches mice from the cupboard. Rising impatiently, Joe sent the ads sliding off his side and across the table. Ryan gave him a look, and picked them up. “You needn't be so grumpy.”

“You're collecting economic disasters,” he said coolly, “gambling on a collapsing market, just begging to lose your shirts with these expensive toys.”

“Market'll pick up,” Ryan said gently. “You're just not big on patience.”

“I'm patient on a mouse hole.”

“You are patient tracking a felon,” she said, reaching again, to scratch his ears. She always knew how to get to him. “I'd like to know who's bought up so many of these old places, though, grabbed them before the listings even hit the street.” While expensive homes and estates had taken a tumble, it was the small vacation cottages and the homes of those who worked at the service trades that had been hardest hit.

But then suddenly many of these had been purchased overnight, including three of the cottages that Ryan and Clyde had badly wanted, that would have lent themselves to just the kind of renovations they enjoyed working on. And then after the houses went off the market so quickly, they had stood empty for months. No resale signs, no renters, no work crews making repairs to put them back on the market at a quick profit. They simply sat. Empty and uncared for, the weeds growing tall, the lawns turning yellow even with the early spring rains, the old paint peeling like the skin of an onion. This was not like Molena Point, where most of the cottages were carefully maintained, their paint fresh, their front gardens lush with bright blooms and flowering trees and bushes.

In two cases, in the very neighborhood where Ryan and Clyde had made their last purchase, the neighbors had begun to see hushed activity late at night around the neglected houses, soft lights behind drawn shades, strange cars pulling quietly into the drive and soon slipping away again.

And now here they were this morning, still looking at that blighted neighborhood despite the neighbors' unease and the whole country's worry over the real estate market—as if nothing here, in this village, could stay down for long.

But as the two diligently sorted through the ads, forever optimistic, Joe was more interested in the problem of the moment. In the letter on the mantel that needed decisive action before their happy home was invaded by some strange young woman in the throes of a divorce, with two cranky-looking kids in tow, a woman severely driven by a sudden lack of a home and income. If this Debbie Kraft gained a foothold, if she moved in with them as she was pushing to do, she might linger for months, as persistent as a bad case of mange.

Leaping from the table to the mantel, he read it again, looking pointedly at Ryan. This, not pie-in-the-sky real estate investments, was the dilemma facing them right now. He looked at the photograph of Debbie herself and the two little girls that she had enclosed hoping, perhaps, to charm an invitation from the Damens. There wasn't much charm apparent. She was a scrawny young woman with an angry scowl on her face, long, dull hair hanging loose down her back, her ankle-length denim skirt sagging at the hem, both children clinging to it like baby possums grasping their mother. The kids were maybe four years old, and twelve, both as ragged as their mother. The older child's expression was as sour as her mother's, too. The younger girl didn't look at the camera but stared at the ground, huddled into herself, perhaps in a fit of shyness, or perhaps fear. The best-looking one of the group was the cat, and even he didn't look too happy.

The older child held the big red tabby awkwardly in her arms, squeezing him so tight the cat's ears were flat to his broad, tomcat head. The camera had caught his ringed tail blurred, swinging in an angry lash, the cat obviously practicing great restraint in not slashing his juvenile captor. Debbie's letter didn't mention the cat, until the very end.

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