Cat on the Money
by Shirley Rousseau Murphy
The first 8 parts of this story appeared in Cats Magazine, which was discontinued before the remaining installments of the serial could be published.
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PART 1 PART 2 PART 3 PART 4 PART 5 PART 6 PART 7 PART 8 PART 9 PART 10 PART 11 PART 12
The village of Molena Point lay cupped between sea and hills and blessed by sunshine, its cottages and shops shaded beneath ancient oaks. A perfect place for a cat--feline hunter or couch potato. Or for a cat of added, and more unusual, talents.
It was dawn, 6:02, when sirens screamed through the village. Above on the grassy hills, the gray tomcat pricked his ears and reared up. Watching the squad car far below, small as an ant, careen through the empty streets, immediately he left his kill, heading down as eagerly as any ambulance chaser. Village crime, to Joe Grey, was far more interesting than the remains of a dead rat.
6:20 a.m. Police Captain Max Harper stood among the ruffled curtains and potted ferns of Otter Pine Inn's tearoom preparing to photograph the corpse. The tearoom, with its wicker furniture, flowered wallpaper and fine crystal and china, was among the most charming settings in the village, a chamber used exclusively for formal afternoon tea, no other meal served there.
The body lay as if sleeping, a lovely, blond woman dressed in black leotards. She had no apparent wound. There was no sign of violence. She appeared to have died from a sudden massive heart attack but she was young for that, maybe thirty. Harper had smelled nothing on her breath to suggest certain drugs or poison. Her face was not flushed and there was no sign that she had struggled, as with some violent seizure. The coroner was on his way. Harper hadn't sent a detective on the case; the village was small, the inn's owner a close friend. Beyond the leaded windows, the morning was foggy and chill. The body had been discovered at 6:00, when janitors entered the tearoom to clean.
Harper was a tall man, thin, his lined face leathery from the sun, his brown eyes tired. He was not in uniform but dressed in faded jeans and sweat shirt. Among the chintz and delicate furniture, he felt awkward--as out of place as the big gray tomcat who appeared suddenly, shouldering in through the open door, his yellow eyes wide with interest. Harper wasn't pleased. "Get out of here, Joe Grey. We don't need cats contaminating the evidence."
Joe looked at Harper, amused. Licking the taste of rat from his whiskers, he considered the corpse, observing the body as intently as the captain had done. At first he thought the dead woman was Patty Rose herself, the inn's famous owner--big Hollywood name in the forties. But though she looked like Patty, she was far younger--a slim lady, her hair falling into short, honey colored waves, her pretty hands well cared for. He could smell the scent of brine, and her black shoes were wet as if from the sea, water puddling around her, into the carpet. Something black lay tangled under her tawny hair. A mask?
Yes, a black mask. He could make out its pointed ears and cat's face--a costume for the coming festival.
February was the only month when Molena Point's hotels had to work to keep their rooms full. The rest of the year, the village attracted wall-to-wall tourists. Early this year, some wag had thought to have a cat festival. Really a bit much, the tomcat thought, coupled with the usual jazz festival, art exhibits, wine tastings and little theater and with Otter Pine Inn's own competition.
Joe Grey sauntered closer, studying the young woman's face.
"Simms, get that cat out of here. That's Clyde Damen's cat. Why does he always turn up at a crime scene!"
The officer hurried in, reaching for Joe. Joe raised an armored paw. You touch me, Simms, you'll be wanting the emergency ward--but the tomcat said no word aloud.
Only four people knew Joe Grey's command of the English language, knew that he could out-argue any politician and out-shout an Irish cop, knew that the gray tomcat read the Molena Point Gazette over breakfast, and followed local channel news; only four people were privileged to converse with Joe Grey. Max Harper wasn't among them.
When Simms tried to throw his jacket over him, Joe ripped the sleeve, then lay down beneath the yellow police tape. Harper looked at the two of them. "I'll deal with him. Go find the Mannings--or Jim Manning. The third floor penthouse. If this is his wife, he'll need to ID her."
The Mannings had been enjoying a luxurious two-week vacation, in the inn's bridal suite, first prize for Alice Manning in the Patty Rose look-alike contest. A week of pampering, gourmet meals, and daily sessions with photographers and PR people, the event affording maximum publicity for the inn, handled as only Patty Rose knew how to orchestrate. How shocking for their exciting holiday to end in this manner.
Slipping closer to the body, Joe Grey sniffed deeply, thinking to detect, with his superior feline nose, some substance that might have killed quickly, without violent reaction. Perhaps a trace of bitter almond?
But he could smell only sea brine and the waxy sweet scent of the dead woman's lipstick. When he looked around for a glass or cup that might have held a lethal drink, he saw Harper doing the same, checking behind flower pots and decorative cookie tins as he photographed the surround, the captain so intent on the evidence that he soon forgot the tomcat.
The lattice-fronted cupboards at one end of the tearoom were filled with fine crystal. If the woman had died from poison, each glass would have to be checked, as would the glasses in the far pantry. Joe wondered about those in the kitchen, where he could hear the clatter of breakfast preparations. Thinking of the tedious police work ahead, he was glad he wasn't human, glad he could run an investigation in his own way, without all the bells and whistles.
Certainly his methods worked--Joe Grey and his tabby lady had a nice string of successes, over a dozen murders and robberies solved; and they'd been responsible for just as many convictions, passing vital information to the law anonymously--evidence that, in many cases, no cop could have found.
Trotting beneath the wicker tables, he entered the tearoom's pantry where the fancy sandwiches and cakes were brought from the main kitchen. Sniffing along the cabinets, he started when, beyond the open window, a black shape leaped into an oak tree then out of sight. The scent of the huge black tomcat was unmistakable, stirring in Joe a rumbling growl--he hadn't expected to see that cat again, Azrael who could open any skylight or window, his paws as clever as those of a monkey; Azrael who could gain access to any shop then open the door from within for his human partner, the old man to strip the cash register and break open the safe before the pair vanished. And it wasn't only the tom's thieving ways that enraged Joe. The thought of that cat near his true love, beautiful tabby Dulcie, brought him to full alert.
Following Azrael's scent across the pantry and into the restaurant office, he smelled brine as well, around a carved screen that stood behind the desk. Leaping to the blotter, Joe pawed at the screen until he'd levered a panel back--revealing a wall safe.
It was closed and apparently locked. How like Patty Rose, he thought, amused, the image-conscious movie star, hiding her valuables behind a rosewood and ivory screen.
Nothing else in the room seemed amiss, the papers on the desk and books on the shelf neatly arranged. Pushing the screen back, he returned to the tearoom behind Harper's back and onto the window seat, slipping under its fancy cushions. Looking out from beneath a velvet pillow, warm and purring, he wondered why he hadn't smelled the tomcat's human partner, that thieving, wrinkled old man. Where was Greeley?
Across the room, the medical examiner, a thin, gray suited man, stood conferring with Captain Harper. He had pulled a sheet over the body. Beyond the tearoom door in the patio and garden, a crowd had gathered, held in check by yellow police tape and two officers. The onlookers were forced apart suddenly as a man came running, a handsome, tanned guy in denim shorts and T-shirt, shouting and pushing through. "Alice! Alice!"
Shouldering past Harper, he knelt beside the dead woman pulling the sheet away from her face, pulling her into his arms, shaking her, trying to wake her. "Alice!"
He froze, staring at her, staring up at Harper. "This isn't Alice!" He cradled the woman's face in his hands. "My God, she looks like Alice." Then he saw the black leotards. "Not Alice. Not her clothes!" He rose, grabbing Harper. "Where's my wife? Where's Alice?"
So, Joe thought, their vacation wasn't such a disaster after all. But what was going on, here? The death of movie star Patty Rose's look-alike wearing a cat costume, her feet briny from the sea. The inn's safe burglarized. And the untimely return of Azrael, a cat with the same unique talents as Joe himself, but those skills irreparably corrupted--disparate matters indeed pricking Joe Grey's curiosity, alerting every sly, sleuthing instinct.
Copyright 2001 by Shirley Rousseau Murphy. All rights reserved.
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