She felt sick. Sick as a dog. Hot and feverish despite the icy rain, the thought made her laugh. She was here for the cats, after all. But the laugh had her doubling over in pain, her head bowed so that the whipping wind chilled the sweat on the back of her neck. She had to get home, get back to bed. This was no night to be out, and the cramps were getting worse. No more laughing, she told herself. No more distractions. Tonight, it was all about the cats. She shone her flashlight under a pile of wind-blown trash. Hadn’t she seen a pair of yellow eyes here earlier? Nothing looked back at her now and she stumbled forward in pain. Where were the cats? She’d been sure the tabby would be back, and the orange spotted one, too, still searching for their lost kittens. A tremor shook her and she dropped the flashlight, tripping over the broken edge of the pavement as she tried to force her numb fingers around the cold metal. There! What was that? The flashlight had rolled and as she crawled forward to get it, she saw the two bright spots spark toward her. She knelt, unable to rise, and stared as they grew brighter. Another cramp, sudden and fierce, doubled her over and sent the flashlight into the gutter. No matter, she was unaware of the darkness now, lying in the road as the two lights glowed brighter still.
From the cover of a nearby holly, two yellow eyes watched as the lights bore down. Blinking once, they turned and disappeared into the night.
Day had broken, cold and gray. Exceedingly cold and gray, and I burrowed further into the snow for warmth. Sleep was the enemy, it meant death in this frozen world, but the desire to succumb was seductive. If I just let go, soon the cold would be gone, or at least I would no longer feel it. There would be stillness, a quiet drifting off. Peace.
But just then something damp touched my face, and I struggled to open my eyes. Round green eyes were close, too close, waiting for me to relax. To give in. Hypothermia had a gentle embrace, but I feared the fangs that went with those unblinking eyes. I opened my mouth to breathe, to call for help, and felt the touch of fur. The green eyes leaned in.
“Kitty!” My Jack London dream burst. I wasn’t on the Yukon trail, buried in a snowdrift with my sled dogs. I was in bed, with—I sputtered—cat hair on my lip. “Musetta!” I spit and reached out from under the covers to wipe who-knew-what from my mouth. The kitty in question—my black and white Musetta—drew back, but only to the edge of the fluffy white duvet we shared. The room was freezing, and those round eyes were indeed staring, full of accusation. She was furious, but I couldn’t help smiling. Puffed up against the cold, that offending paw now tucked beneath her white tuxedo front, my pet appeared even rounder than usual. Only the off-center white spot on her nose disrupted the symmetry, making her look ever so slightly cross-eyed and so adorable. But no less pissed. Those eyes were ruthless: I was the boss of our little pride, so such inclement weather was my fault, endangering us both. She’d been within her rights to wake me, with nose and paw or any means necessary. She was waiting.
“Hang on.” Dreading the shock of the bare wood floor, I swung my legs around her, and pranced gingerly toward the window, slamming it shut as another blast of icy wind and, yes, some snow, blew into the room. At thirty-three, I still lived like a student, a result of budget as much as preference. But this one wasn’t my fault. I remembered opening that window, hours before. I’d come back from a show, the band’s bassist a friend of a friend, and while the music had been unremarkable, a lousy sound mix swamping whatever hooks there were in the mud of distortion, something had inspired me to take notes. And while I’d been trying to write, pecking away at my computer keyboard, the heat had kicked in full blast, turning my one-bedroom apartment into a sweat box. Musetta had been thrilled when I’d cracked the window then, jumping up on the sill to sniff at the night air.
But that had been hours ago. The radiator was cold now and silent, without the clanking that preceded the flood of steam into its antique pipes. Maybe the super had actually re-set a thermostat somewhere in this big ugly box of a building? Or could something have gone wrong? The giant furnace in the basement had a reputation as a temperamental monster, a creaking remnant from decades past, and it also had an entire brick apartment building to heat—six floors of renters. The whole place was falling apart—bit by bit, just out of neglect. Someday the management would kick us out, would sell the building for condos. A nasty thought crept into my sleepy mind.
“They wouldn’t let us go without heat in January, would they?” That illegal, but effective, move had been tried before elsewhere. “Think they’ll try to freeze us out, Musetta?” I always talk to cats. Who knows how much they understand? Besides, I wanted some sympathy in our mutual plight. But all I saw was her sleek black back. Although one ear shifted slightly, she didn’t deign to answer.
I peeked around the blind. Outside my Cambridge apartment, the streetlights were still on. In their glow, I could see the snow turning slick, shifting into the kind of freezing rain that would glaze the city I loved with a deadly beauty. Already, the tree out front sparkled with a coating of ice, and the road below glistened. New England in January: pretty, but treacherous for any poor creature stuck in the storm. And too cold for me. I grabbed the cat—who gave a small protesting “meh!”—and snuggled back under the comforter, trying to find the warmth I’d left. That was one of the pleasures of city living. Someone else in the building would deal with the heat, or the super if that was necessary. With any luck, by the time I was ready to get up, the radiator would be hot again, steaming my worries away. I curled around Musetta and she gave up a purr, grudging, maybe, but steady. I stroked her smooth head and nestled closer, my dark red hair falling over her black bulk. Her nose, still cold and wet, settled against my arm as her head dipped down and we slept.
# # #
The phone woke me what seemed like moments later. The phone, and Musetta kicking free in reaction. I followed her bouncing jodhpurs into the living room, rubbing my eyes. Yes, the room was warm. Time must have passed. My own dry mouth confirmed the functioning of the radiator.
“Nyah?” I needed coffee.
“Theda, you awake?” It was Violet. “Stupid question, sorry. It’s not even eight. But Theda, if you can wake up, I need you.”
Violet knew my hours—and my caffeine addiction—as well as anyone. She’s a musician, but we’d met when she’d been working as a barrista at my local coffee house, the Mug Shot, and I had just started freelancing. Now I write about music and by choice I write at night, Vi’s band gigs regularly, and we both share a social life that centers around the Boston-Cambridge club scene. This was way too early, and she knew it.
“Hang on.” I leaned into the tiny alcove the landlord called a kitchenette and filled a glass at the sink. Two gulps later and my tongue worked. “Okay.” I could hear Violet humming to herself, one of her own songs probably. “Okay, I’m awake now. What’s up?”
“Huh?” Since leaving the Mug Shot, Violet ran a small local shelter for her day job. Usually her charges kept the same hours she did.
“I’m not sure, but I think we’ve got a cat-trapping emergency. Caro’s working out in Amherst all week, and of course my drummer’s got our van. Can you help?”
I looked over at Musetta, who had settled onto my old sofa. With her feet tucked under and her eyes already starting to close again, she was the picture of a contented feline. But she’d been a shelter cat once, and, before that, a homeless kitten. I thought of last night’s storm.
“Give me twenty minutes to get dressed and pick up some coffee?”
“Thanks, Theda. I wouldn’t turn down a large French roast, and maybe a lemon poppyseed muffin if they’ve got ’em.”
# # #
When I pulled up at the old Victorian that housed both my friend and the Lillian Helmhold House for Wayward Cats a half hour later, bag of muffins propped between two travel mugs, Violet was waiting out front. Caro—Violet’s partner and a jill-of-all-trades carpenter-contractor—had reinforced the old house’s sagging gutters and replaced its missing shutters. She’d even painted the three-story building, home to Caro and Vi and more than two dozen felines, in a lively palette of greens and golds. But although it glowed in comparison to the brick block next door, the grand old dame was no match for the diminutive purple-haired punk on the sidewalk. In deference to the icy cold, Violet had a bright red ear-warmer wrapped around her head, one that made her spiked locks stand up straighter. In a day-glo orange parka she looked like an elf gone bad.
“Damn, I hate winter.” As she clambered into my old Toyota, I could see that her nose matched the ear-wrap. She grabbed a mug and took a swig. “Ah, thanks.” Popping a piece of muffin between chattering teeth, she looked back out at the street. “This is brutal.”
“Slick, too. I fishtailed when I turned onto Putnam. At least the sleet has stopped. Where to?”
“Down by the river. You know where the old bottling plant is?” I nodded. Punctuating our neighborhood of triple deckers and the occasional red brick box, the towering “Industrial Space To Let” sign was a local landmark, the last bit of working-class Cambridgeport as drivers crossed over to Boston. “Good, this might be nothing, but when it’s this cold out, I’ve got to check.” “Check on what?” Violet was cupping her hands over the heating vent, hoping for warmth I knew wouldn’t start up for another ten minutes. I broke off a chunk of muffin, sour cream and poppy with a fresh, lemony tang, and pulled out, watching for the slick spots that indicated black ice.
“I got a call from Eva. You know, Luisa’s mother?” I nodded, chewing. I didn’t have a clear picture of the mother, but I remembered the shy, dark-haired girl who had adopted a huge, mellow tabby months before. “She’s a nurse in the ER at Cambridge City and she was working the lobster shift when they brought in our old buddy, Gail Womynfriend.”
I rolled my eyes. Gail was an animal rights activist, a cause I believed in—in principle. But Gail was so far out on the edge that she considered Violet’s shelter work to be collusion with the enemy, those who would keep free animals enslaved. “Psychotic break?” I reached for more muffin while Violet held the bag.
“No, she’d been hit by a car. Hurt pretty badly, Eva said.” “Ticked-off breeder?” I was half serious. Gail didn’t believe in propagating domestic animals, and wasn’t averse to protesting. Loudly. “Someone at the university?” I remembered when the short, wiry-haired woman had “liberated” thirty lab rats and chained herself to their cages instead.
“Could be,” Violet’s voice turned quiet. At least her teeth were no longer chattering. “It was hit and run.”
Just then I came up to the traffic circle under the BU bridge. We’d caught the tail end of the commuter rush, and I had to wait before accelerating into the shaded roundabout. The pavement had a suspicious sheen, and I could feel my rear wheels spin a moment before catching.
“The weather was pretty foul last night.” My own near-skid reminded me. “It was probably an accident.”
“Yeah, but to drive away? That’s low.”
“Maybe whoever it was didn’t know they’d hit someone?” Violet looked over at me. I didn’t believe it either. “No, you’re right. That’s horrible. But what’s it got to do with cats?”
“Pull up here.” We were getting close to a long, low industrial building, a dozen of its windows knocked out and covered in plywood, backed up against the riverside Memorial Drive. Mostly brick, with a base of granite blocks the size of my work desk, it was an impressive landmark. It used to be more. When I’d first come to Cambridge as a college freshman, fifteen years ago, this had been a thriving bottling plant, employing dozens of my neighbors. Last I’d heard, maybe a quarter of the big brick factory was occupied—small-scale software outfits and the like—and I had my pick of parking along the side street that led to the main entrance. We got out and I cupped my gloved hands around my insulated mug, following Violet up a cracked cement walkway.
“You know they’re going to build condos here?” I didn’t, but considering how fast my little city was changing I wasn’t surprised. Cambridge, Boston’s “left bank,” was a realtor’s wet dream. “One of Sally’s friends was looking into renting the base- ment, turning it into practice spaces, when she got the word: no more rentals. So some of us started asking why. Gail was taking care of a colony of feral cats that live somewhere around here, and I think someone must have passed the news on. Last I heard, Gail was going to try to relocate them.”
“I didn’t realize she’d get that involved.” Gail was a member of Animals Now, which as far as I could tell focused on making human lives hell in retribution for all our sins. “I mean, wouldn’t she rather have killed the developer?”
“I wouldn’t put it past her, if she had access to an ecologically sound weapon. But really, she wasn’t that bad.” Violet caught my look and shrugged. “I mean, we’re basically on the same side, trying to save the animals and all.” I bit back my response, taking a long swig of my swiftly cooling latté instead. Violet took in strays and often got them adopted as pets. She worked hard at teaching our Cambridgeport neighborhood about the need to spay and neuter. I’d heard Gail speak: she didn’t believe in pets, and only supported neutering because we’d “corrupted” cats by domesticating them and she wanted the species to die out. Given her druthers, the intense little activist would have euthanized half the human population for revenge, and turned Cambridge into a sanctuary for the native possums, pigeons, and woodchucks.
Some of this must have shown on my face, despite the soft wool cap I’d pulled down over my eyebrows. “Whatever you think of her, she was doing good work,” said Violet, leading me up a wide set of stairs. We reached a set of metal doors, secured with a chain and heavy padlock, and after tugging on their handles, Violet started back down. “There was a big colony living here and she’d asked me for some help.”
I followed, draining the last of my coffee. “You? What about her coven?”
“I’m telling Bunny.” Our friend Bunny’s a Wiccan, but too softhearted for anyone outside of liberal-lefty Cambridge to call a witch. Violet walked along the building’s brick and granite front, stopping occasionally to peek under the sad yews that passed for foundation shrubbery. “Anyway, I think Gail had a falling out with the Animals Now guys. She called me to ask about humane trapping. I figured she wanted to do TNR. You know, trap, neuter, return? But then she said something about moving the cats. I thought she meant fostering them, trying to turn them into pets, and I made some suggestions. She just lost it. Said I was trying to pervert nature. Screamed about letting them be. Then, when I heard about the condo plan, I realized she must have meant getting them out of here before the bulldozers come.”
Tagging along after, I wondered how long that would be. The sprawling factory complex took up almost an acre along the river. With that view and so close to the universities and Boston right across the Charles, condos here could go for a million easy.
“I can’t believe this old place has lasted so long.” “Development rights. And some of us in the neighborhood have been lobbying for a park.” She smiled, and I wondered just how active that “lobbying” had been. Our Cambridgeport neighborhood, nestled into a bend of the river, served as a microcosm of the city: students and professors shared blocks, and often buildings, with new immigrants from Asia and Africa, while older communities of Cape Verdeans and Haitians added their traditions to the mix. Usually, we all found some way to get along. With a population this tightly packed, we’d better. But these days the uniting factor tended to be resentment toward developers, the speculators and big-money investors who wanted to turn our little city by the Charles into the next Gold Coast. Not that any realtors were going to stroll by on a subzero morning like this. I stamped my feet on the concrete; my toes were going numb. Whatever their prospects for the future, the old building’s remaining windows were blank today. My hopes of a hot caffeine refill faded.
“So, what are we looking for?” Violet was on her knees peering under a hedge.
“Oh yeah. Sorry. Cats. Cats and traps. Eva said she didn’t have a chance to breathe until her shift ended, but she called as soon as she could. Gail was in pretty bad shape when they brought her in, but I guess she recognized Eva. I don’t know, from the shelter, or just from around. Maybe she was delirious. Anyway, she reached up and grabbed Eva when they were taking her into surgery. ‘Cats,’ she said. ‘Get the cats out.’ Eva couldn’t get anything else out of her, not in the few seconds she had. Probably Gail was just out of it, but Eva called and asked if there was something going on that I should be aware of, something with the shelter. And that’s when I thought about the trapping. If Gail had been out here, maybe trying to move the cats before the storm, maybe she set some traps. Any cats out in this weather wouldn’t last another night. I mean, they can deal with a lot of cold, but not if their fur gets wet. So I told her we’d have a look around, see if we could find any traps and free any animals that might be inside. It’s a long shot, but even with a fur coat, this is no weather for any living creature.”
# # #
I couldn’t muster up a ton of sympathy for Gail, accident or no, but if she’d been hit trying to save cats I figured I could at least help finish her work. Besides, the idea of terrified animals, freezing after a sleet storm was too much for me. For the next half hour, Violet and I poked around the old building’s front yard, looking under bushes and into every broken window big enough for the petite Gail to have crawled through. Violet was a few years younger than me, shorter and more lithe, but I did my best to keep up, peering under anything that looked like a possible hiding space.
Nobody would see my blue-jeaned butt up in the air anyway. The place was deserted, the empty grounds isolating the building from the neighborhood that began only a block away. It was Monday, well past nine, but any tenants who’d sublet space here either didn’t keep banker’s hours or had long ago given up the ghost. Even if they’d been evicted, there was no sign of any development. No flagged stakes squared off the frosted gray earth. Someone at some point had driven some heavy equipment here. Treads like the mark of giant claws dug into what had once been lawn. But these were frozen hard, the tracks of dinosaurs made back when the earth was moist and young. Beyond those marks and a few sad hedges, the grounds were as bare and hard as a moonscape.
The front covered, we walked around a silent corner. The plant, which had seemed liked a stone-and-brick monolith from the street, actually had two small courtyards on its river side, making a shape like a giant letter “E” that had fallen forward onto its face along Memorial Drive. The design hinted at better days, and I could imagine a time when owners valued fresh air and windows for their workers. But as we walked into the first courtyard everything looked lifeless, old chips bags the only color beside the faded brick.
“So I should be looking for cats?” I called over to Violet. “Traps, actually. Big, boxy wire cages, like big Hav-A-Hearts,” she yelled back, already on her hands and knees, peering under a sickly yew. “Gail might have tried to camouflage them under branches or a blanket.”
Along the far wall, a gray tangle of twigs reaching to the windows suggested some variety in the long-dead landscaping. Rags and bleached newspaper plastered over the branches like postindustrial papier-mâché. Perfect place for a trap, but as I crossed the bare courtyard the dirt crumbled under my boots, brittle and dry from repeated freezes. No person had walked here, not recently, and true enough the dead shrub held nothing except ice and more garbage.
“It doesn’t look like anyone has been here since the first freeze.” Or the last Ice Age. “You sure the developers are coming here?”
“Yup.” Violet’s voice was muffled as she examined a pile of fallen branches. I picked one up and poked a hillock of leaves. I didn’t ask how she knew. Violet and I overlapped in a lot of areas, but not all of them.
We moved onto the next courtyard. Set back from the entrance, separated from Memorial Drive by a few sad-looking trees, stood a wooden outbuilding. Maybe it had once held gardening tools. At some point, it had been painted a cheery blue. Now the dominant color was gray, and it looked like a good wind would do for it. But I could see a heavy chain and bolted metal catch on the warped door. The tiny structure might seem abandoned, but somebody had once cared.
“No way there’s a trap in there.” Violet walked up to it anyway, rattled the door. I turned back toward the courtyard, kicking at leaves until a movement made me freeze.
There, underneath an evergreen bush, a flash of orange. Then another. I caught a brief glimpse of a long, lean shape, orange striped with white. I reached back to motion Violet, but she was already beside me. We craned toward the bush at the opening of the courtyard, but that small movement had been enough, and the cat backed into the dark olive leaves. What could have been a rustle was covered by the sound of the wind.
We inched forward, into the shelter of the courtyard, and crouched low, waiting. My hair blew into my mouth and I realized I was holding my breath.
“There!” My whisper was louder than I’d meant it to be, but the wind took it. I saw a head peek out, then an entire body, skinny to the point of scrawniness.
“She’s watching us.” We both fell silent. The marmalade head dipped to a half-frozen puddle and began lapping furiously. Beside me, Violet shifted. We’d been crouching for several minutes by then. The cat started—and ducked into the bushes.
“I’m surprised she’s even showing herself.” Violet knew more about feline behavior than I ever would. “She should be hiding from us.”
The cat peeked out again, her mouth opening in a silent mew. “What’s wrong with her? Do you think she’s hurt?”
Violet inched forward, but it was enough. The cat took off, this time for good. “Well, she’s healthy enough to run. Something was bothering her, though.” We both stood and stretched. Violet kicked the dirt with a frustration I shared, and we went to work on the second courtyard.
Once again, we split up, Violet tackling a low brambly-looking shrub against the far wall, while I found myself examining the evergreen that had sheltered the marmalade cat. The bush was half dead, broken brown branches hung off the glossier green ones. It looked like a good hiding place to me. An almost cozy home, but she was nowhere to be seen, even when I crawled along the low-hanging bush. I couldn’t find any signs of a trap, either, but the end of the bush revealed a basement bulkhead, partially caved in. More fallen branches, blown from the courtyard’s one surviving elm, almost covered the shattered wood of the doors.
I knelt and peered into the gloom of the bulkhead. Even in the frozen air, a whiff of ammonia came through. Eau de litter-box, descending into deep shadow. “Violet?” I wasn’t sure how a cornered feral would react.
“Theda! I got ’em! Over here!” Getting stiffly to my feet I trotted over to the other side of the courtyard, where Violet’s orange parka was visible through the brambles. Crawling in behind her, I saw what had caught her attention: two traps, one sprung. Huddled in the back of one orange-crate-sized wire cage was a yellow-eyed tabby, hissing at us weakly. A bit of greasy bacon was still caught in a clothespin clipped to the side. That must have been the bait, but she’d been too freaked out to claim her prize. “Stand back.” Violet waved me away. I moved to the side, watching for thorns, and Violet lifted the door. No movement. She reached gingerly for the trap’s handle, expecting a swipe of claws, and gently shook the wire cage. Nothing—the cat was too scared, too cold, or too ill. She just huddled in the corner, dingy fur fluffed. Another weak hiss seemed to take all she had, and then she hung her head.
“Poor girl, she’s wiped out. I guess we’re taking her to the shelter.” Violet let the door back down, and the tabby roused enough for another round of hissing and spit. “At least she’s got some fight left in her.”
“Yeah, but she sure looks like she could use a meal, not to mention a dry, warm bed.”
Violet sighed. Her shelter, which didn’t euthanize, was nearly always full, and on principle she focused on strays and abandoned pets. Those already socialized animals not only got along with each other, they had the best chance of being placed—which meant, in turn, that Violet could take in the next litter or lost animal the neighborhood kids brought around. “Okay, kitty, you like us so much, you’re going to love a car ride.”
I used a stick to spring the other trap shut and pulled it from its covering of brush. We’d began the long walk back to the car when it hit me. “Violet, there was a bulkhead over by where we saw the other cat. It smelled like there might be some cat activity there.”
She looked at the terrified feline. Despite the movement of the cage, the cat remained pressed to the back corner. “We’ve got to get this little girl out of the cold.”
I handed her my car keys. “Here, go warm yourselves up. I’ll just be a minute.”
“Wait.” Putting the cage down, Violet rummaged in the pockets of her oversize parka, coming up with a small flashlight. “If it’s the feral, she’ll probably bolt. Let her. If there’s a cage….”
“I know, I’ll watch my fingers.” I took the flashlight and ran back to the bulkhead. Darkness. Through the broken door, I couldn’t see anything but splintered stairs and dead leaves. There didn’t even seem to be much snow or ice collected in the dark hollow. Taking a deep breath, I grabbed the broken door and pulled. It came open more easily than I’d expected, and I jumped back as it fell to the ground with a thud. Nothing moved, and I listened for a hiss. The wooden stairs before me didn’t look any sturdier with sunlight on them. But Violet knew where I was going. If I didn’t return…
This was silliness. I stepped in and caught my breath at the stench. Down three stairs, I felt a spider web on my cheek. Could this get any more gross? Thanking my foresight for wearing a hat, I brushed the offending web from my face and continued down to the concrete floor. Flicking on Violet’s flashlight, I peered under the stairs. No eyes reflected back, and I turned to open the bottom doors, also made of wooden planks. They gave ever so slightly, but then held firm. I shook them, hoping to free them from whatever ice or debris held them fast. Nothing. With the flashlight, I examined the bottom of the doors, kicking away the dead leaves gathered there to expose solid wood; no holes or broken boards. Then up the gap between the doors—all the way to the shiny new lock. Well, good. Either a renter or the property’s owner had the foresight to secure the basement. I thought of Violet’s contact and wondered if some band had been taking advantage of an open, empty building. No musician would want to leave equipment here, but before the latest deep freeze it might have been a good space for a party.
At any rate, I was off the hook. Even if a cat might still have found a way in, a cat trapper couldn’t. Ducking to avoid the remnants of the spider’s weavings, I trotted back to the light and lifted the rotten outer door back into place. Maybe that little entranceway would be shelter for some poor beast, stuck in the bitter cold of a New England winter. I gave the courtyard one last look. The marmalade cat was nowhere to be seen.
# # #
We were loading the cages into the backseat when I heard a rush of notes, the five-beat bass line to “Police and Thieves.”
“I know. Old school!” Violet reached into her parka as the reggae-punk riff repeated and opened a tiny purple cell phone.
“Chic!” She smiled, and then listened.
“Wow. Okay, okay. We’ll be at the shelter soon. And Eva? Thanks.” She snapped it shut.
“What was that?” I tucked a blanket around the trapped cat’s cage and got hissed at for my troubles.
“Eva just had a visit from the cops. It seems someone saw Gail talking to her in the emergency room, and they’re asking questions.”
“Because it was a hit and run?” We pulled away, and my old car responded with a blast of almost warm air. “Can’t Gail tell them anything yet?”
“Gail’s dead, Theda. And the cops seem to think that the hit-and-run wasn’t an accident.”