When I first got the call about a “cat shooting,” I assumed the worst. People can be evil, and I’ve seen the damage they can do. But when I got to the house, I realized that no feline had been brutalized, at least not the way I had feared. The longhaired white cat I found cowering in a cupboard was apparently unharmed, aside from shock and some singeing where the powder had marked her silky white coat. It was the person who was dead.
The house was anything but, buzzing like a beehive. I didn’t know what the brouhaha was about at first, just that the call that summoned me had sounded serious. So, for a change, I’d come. In general, I don’t do summoning well. As independent as any lone female, I prefer to name my terms. The phrase “cat shooting” had caught me, however. When an animal is in danger, I’m willing to bend the rules. And while I wasn’t given the details, as soon as I pulled into the long semi-circular drive, it was clear something was up. With their coveralls and protective booties on, those technician types didn’t fit with the detailed woodwork or the spacious porch that wrapped around two sides of the restored Queen Anne. Two of the techies, carrying in some kind of plastic case, left the carved door ajar, so I’d followed them in. So many people were filtering in and out by then nobody seemed to care if I tramped in on a crime scene. In fact, despite the ominous words I’d heard on the phone, I wasn’t entirely sure that I was in one. Until I saw what was left of him.
Downstairs office—probably the grand house’s sitting room in a prior incarnation—with a view of a lawn that must have stretched down to the river, and a body that had been dead long enough to really look it. Donal Franklin, if the letterhead scattered across the desk was any indication. I certainly couldn’t tell. I’d met Donal—Don, he’d called himself—at a black-tie Valentine’s Day dinner I’d been duped into attending. But the cold, still thing that lay in a pool of blood bore no resemblance to the dapper socialite I’d danced with not six weeks before. This thing was white, fake looking against the darkening blood. Plastic. Like another dead body I’d seen, not that long ago.
“Pru—Pru Marlowe—over here.”
The sound of my name snapped me back to the present, and I managed to turn away from the mess that had been a man.
“You okay?” The question came from Jim Creighton, Officer Jim Creighton. He wanted to know if I was going to be sick all over his evidence, not if the sight of a less than fresh corpse made me weepy. He’s sentimental that way.
“Dandy, Jim.” I swallowed. A fly buzzed by. Someone must have opened a window, and the stationery fluttered slightly, rearranging itself by the body. I had probably turned a little green, but the breeze—cold, harsh—did me good. Besides, Creighton knew me well enough to know that I’m tougher than I look. Not girly at all, despite the long dark hair that I keep tied back while working and what have been described as dangerous curves. We’d had some contact, the good officer and I, in the past. Right now, he had his hands full without worrying about my tender feminine side. “What’s up?”
Despite the magnetic pull of the corpse, I kept my eyes on Jim Creighton and even managed a step in his direction. In truth, it wasn’t hard. Even in his drab brown uniform, our local peace officer was a looker. But any urge I had to ruffle that too short, sandy hair was muted by our surroundings—and the technicians who hovered, photographing and cataloging everything on that desk or on the floor, where the blood had begun to congeal.
Next to the puddle lay some kind of gun. With its sleek, dark barrel, maybe nine inches long, and a trigger like a flower petal, it looked more decorative than deadly. The filigree pattern on its side—silver gone tarnished, I was guessing—and the beauty of the grain drew me. Could this pretty toy have done all that? I reached for the polished grip.
“Uh uh.” Jim Creighton was as fast as he was smooth, and his hand closed over mine. “Over here.” He led me to a bay window where a built-in window seat held oversized art books. Flayderman’s Guide to Antique Guns, I crouched down to where he’d pointed and read. The Art and History of the Duel.
“Light reading, Jim?”
“No, Pru. Over here.” He nodded to his side of the shelf, empty and dark. “Be careful.”
I leaned over. There, as far back as she could go, was the cat. A Persian, by the look of her, one side of her white ruff spattered with black powder. The whiskers on the same side looked singed. I wouldn’t be able to assess any injuries until I had her out of her hiding place, though, so I held one hand out and let her sniff. She squeezed back further and hissed.
“Watch it.” A plump tech had seen me. His arms above the gloves showed scratch marks, beaded with blood. I hadn’t been Creighton’s first choice. “That’s a killer kitty.”
“Seriously.” Creighton heard me start to laugh. “That cat— looks like it set off the gun that killed its owner. There’s a tuft of fur in the trigger housing, and paw prints all over.”
I sat back on my haunches. Not many men can take my stare; Creighton only shifted slightly. “Look, Pru, I can’t get into it. Just take it on faith, for once. Okay? Call it an accident. A real freak accident.”
So that’s what he’d meant by a cat shooting. Death by feline. That’s when the relief swept over me, the kind I’ve learned not to show. Some people, they think human life matters more than other kinds. Not me. Besides, I didn’t know the man, not well, and anyway, he was beyond my help. That Persian, though, she was terrified, and for all I could tell, burned or injured. Usually, when people and animals interact, the animal gets the worst of it. Usually, the person is to blame. I’d get more out of Creighton later. For now, I turned back to the cat.
“Well, then, we’d better check this out. All right, kitty?” I lowered my eyes to appear nonthreatening, all the while reaching out with my thoughts. I visualized the gun, that pretty, deadly toy. A loud noise. A man falling. Something had happened here, and I was hoping for images. Pictures of what had gone down. None of it made sense to me, though the black powder dusting the cat’s side did imply some kind of involvement with the prone and silent man. “You didn’t kill him, did you?” It seemed impossible, no matter what Creighton had said. “Kitty?”
Usually, I can tell these things. It’s not only that I prefer animals to people. It’s a sensitivity I have, what some people—not me—would call a gift. Usually, I can pick up something. Hear a thought—a memory. Whatever. This time I was getting nothing. “You want a broomstick or something?” The plump tech had come up behind me. Just what this traumatized animal needed.
I silenced him with a look that made him happy to return to his corpse and crouched back down to floor level.
“So, kitty, you want to tell me what happened?” The gun was gone, secreted away in some evidence bag, but I tried to remember the pattern. The way the cold metal would feel on a paw pad. The man on the floor. There were a million possible stories here, and in most of them, a person was at fault. “Did you do it?”
The cat just hissed.
I finally resorted to the gauntlets, the long leather gloves that protected me up to the elbow as Ms. Kitty lashed out and bit. I’m not a fan of the gloves. Last thing a scared animal needs is the smell of hide and a force without the sense to withdraw when slashed. The situation wasn’t getting any better, though. And between the noise and the aroma of her dead person, I couldn’t see the white cat relaxing any on her own. Besides, those powder marks worried me.
I’m not a vet. Not even an animal behaviorist really, although I’ve nearly finished the certification program. What I am isn’t that easy to understand, but as I drove to the county shelter— the closest facility around that has a decent animal hospital attached—I tried to make myself clear to the freaked-out feline in the carry box beside me.
“Listen, kitty, I may be the only friend you’ve got left.” From the carrier, a drawn out cry, half wail, half whine, made me wonder if she’d understood me. “I’m trying to help you here, okay? You’ve got to work with me.”
The whine continued and I switched on the heat. Late March in the Berkshires and spring has pretty much arrived, though the optimistic green on the trees would mean little to a housecat. I had to consider that she might be injured. At the very least, she was in shock. Sure enough, as the monster engine in my Pontiac GTO warmed up the car, the low-pitched whine subsided, and I considered my next step. We had twenty minutes, more or less, before the shelter, and I was hoping to get through.
That whine, I figured, was the Persian’s way of telling me off. Tuning me out, blocking the sound of my voice with her own white noise. Maybe it helped her block my thoughts, too, as they prodded and probed for something in that fur-covered skull.
I should explain here: I’m not what they call an “animal communicator.” I can’t tell you what Bootsy wants for dinner, usually, or how Spot is doing over the rainbow bridge. But I have a strange skill. I can hear what animals are thinking. What they’re experiencing, really. It’s not that they talk to me, or not most of them. It’s more like I pick up what’s on their minds, what they’re smelling or hearing or want to do. See the world through their eyes, kind of, though for most of them sight is the least of it. Sometimes, it works the other way, and I can reach out with my voice and my thoughts. That part’s iffier, and I was willing to bet the white Persian wasn’t getting anything from me; the whine had returned, becoming more of a growl. That could have been her choice. Those leather gloves are never a great idea. All I knew for sure was that I had a traumatized animal riding beside me. While I hadn’t noticed any obvious injuries—it’s hard to examine a spitting, slashing cat—all four claws had seemed to be working when I lifted her out of her hiding place and maneuvered her into the carrier. I was betting that shock was the primary concern, but shock can kill an animal. And no matter what Creighton said, I didn’t see what relevance any household accident would have on the animal’s care. It wasn’t like he was going to charge the cat. What mattered to me was getting the animal calmed down and examined. Then we could figure out the next step.
The next step. For a lot of animals, that would be a problem. A shelter looks nice, and you can throw in a few white lies for the kids. I knew better, that it’s usually the end of the line, and it didn’t improve my opinion of my own species. I wondered if she’d matter to anyone left in that house. There’s no way of telling at one glance, but she looked like the real thing. Short, heavy body. Face like a bookend. Besides, nothing else in that house had looked random—or inexpensive. And with that great logic that only we humans have, those that are worth more are usually given the best. As I’ve said, there are reasons I prefer animals. No, I didn’t see euthanasia in this cat’s future. The only question really was, now that her main person was dead, what might her value be.
# # #
“No kids, but there’s a wife,” Creighton had told me. “We’re still trying to reach her. She’s off on a shopping weekend.” He didn’t have to add the obvious: only a certain class of people buys things for recreation. The house had already let us both know who we were dealing with. “She’ll be making the decisions, most likely.” I tried to picture her. Polished certainly. Suave. I didn’t remember who Don had been with that night at the dance. I don’t know if she’d been there. We’d met at the bar. My date had gone off to sweet talk another dude with money. It wasn’t romantic; it was business. He was the type who always had a plan. And I’d been pissed—in both senses—when Don had come by. Maybe the one drink, that one dance had been charity. I’m not proud, and I had wanted to make sure that I was busy by the time Mack came back to collect me. But the dance had been good, old Don light on his feet and sure with his hands even as the tempo picked up. He was used to this, not like me and certainly not like Mack, and I’d said as much, as he glided me right up front by the band.
“My wife,” he’d explained, as he dipped me low. “She’s after me to try new things.” He didn’t have to reference her again; it was never going to go any further. We’d both smiled and backed away as soon as the song ended, and I ended up dancing with one of his friends. That didn’t mean I didn’t wonder who he had at home. I’d hoped she was classy, at least as much as he was. At the very least, I figured, she was generous.
The thought of the corpse on the floor and the man it had been chilled me. Wealth, class—it didn’t matter that much. No matter how much platinum the widow could flash, she’d be coming home to a tragedy, and it might be a while before she was ready to deal with a skittish animal again. I pictured a silver fox, slim and tailored, and could all too easily imagine her understated makeup cracking under one more burden.
“Tell her the cat is in good hands.” I’d said to Creighton. “Tell her, the cat is safe.” Times like this, I fall back on my training. Repeat your command. Keep your voice even and low. The tone, as much as the words, carry your message.
“I’m sure she’ll be broken up about the kitty.” Something in Creighton’s voice made me want to reiterate the command, but he caught himself quick. “Hey, who knows?”
“She’s going to have other things to worry about.” I gave him that much. The Persian was in the carrier by then, and I was pulling off the heavy leather gloves. “Still, it might help to know something is being taken care of. A pet can be a comfort.” “Some comfort.” He had turned from me by then, but he had heard the howling and the hissing. He’d kept his distance as I donned the gauntlets. Besides, a technician was packing up the loose papers, all the random knickknacks of the room. The body would be next. “Let me know when I can examine the cat. She’s evidence.”