I am not a cat. Beyond the obvious—no fur, no whiskers—I’m not and have never been as fastidious as your average feline, and I’m certainly not the clean freak that my own Musetta is. I do not drop everything to bathe.
But as I looked down at the red-brown stain seeping into the knees of my jeans and tried to rub the sticky liquid from my hands, I began to understand the urge. Even as I wiped my palms on the loose papers spread all around, I saw that blood had gotten under my nails, had begun to dry in my knuckles and under the band of my wristwatch. I wanted to back out, to forget that today had ever happened. Looking down at the mangled body that had once been my friend, I knew it was already too late.
Two days earlier
“Tuna breath!” I recoiled in disgust.
“Excuse me?” The voice on the phone was too refined to sound insulted. Still, I owed Patti an explanation.
“Sorry, Patti.” I sat up and pulled my plump cat into my lap—and away from my face. “Musetta was giving me a morning kiss.”
“Oh, isn’t that sweet!” It was, but my cat’s bad breath woke me up more effectively than my neighbor’s early morning call. “But anyway, Theda, I wanted to ask you about the whole cat food thing. I mean, Violet left me a message, and I’ve got some lovely chicken livers left over from my dinner date last night. I should tell you about him; he’s a most interesting man. But anyway, we did a sauté with some sherry, and I just don’t know. I mean, they say the alcohol burns off, but—”
“Hang on a minute.” Who had been sautéed? I shook my head to clear it, sending Musetta, my black and white tuxedo cat, bounding to the floor. It was Tuesday, almost nine, but the regular work week meant little in my line of business. I’m a writer, a music critic who specializes in the club scene of this gritty little city, and I’d been out late the night before. A new British band, on its first US tour, had played the first of two gigs in the area. I’d interviewed them for the weekly column I write for Boston’s Morning Mail, and although it wasn’t necessarily part of the job,
I had stayed up with them long after their midnight set, sharing beers and industry gossip. What’s a job without perks?
“Patti, I don’t mean to be rude.” At this hour, with this head, that was the best I could do. “But what are you talking about?”
“Didn’t you hear? I thought Violet would call you first.” I looked over to my answering machine and saw that it was, in fact, blinking. “There’s something wrong with some of the commercial cat food again. Violet’s cats have been poisoned.”
“What?” That news sent me bolt upright, and Musetta’s fluffy hindquarters cantering out of the room, but I focused my rapidly clearing mind on Patti. “Tell me what happened.”
“I don’t know the details, darling. I just got the call. But I was wondering if you think that livers, cooked with just a little—” I couldn’t listen any more. “Look, Patti, I’ll call you back.
I’ve got to talk to Vi.”
“I understand, Theda. But if you can, ask her about—” I hung up and began dialing the shelter where Violet and her partner Caro cohabited with two dozen formerly healthy, happy felines. As the phone rang, I pressed the “play” button on the answering machine.
“Theda, it’s Vi. Can you give me a call?” I half listened to the machine while waiting for my friend to pick up. “Something’s up. I think I’ve got some bad cat food.” The phone in my hand kept ringing. “Or just come by? And don’t feed Musetta before—” I dropped the phone and ran into the kitchen. Musetta was already bending over her dish, lapping at last night’s can. She looked up as I grabbed it away. The wet food had gone dry and crusty overnight, the half a can that was left.
“Musetta?” She sat and began washing her paws. “Are you okay?” She didn’t respond and I hoisted her into my arms. God, she was getting heavy. “Kitty?” I turned her to look in her face. The round green eyes staring back into mine were clear and bright. Her nose, half pink, half black, was damp and cool. In response to my touch, her tongue darted out and I got another whiff of her breath. “Oh, kitty.” She blinked. But halitosis aside, my cat seemed the picture of health. I put her down and refilled her water dish before running back to the phone. The line was dead; nobody had picked up.
Musetta pounced, grabbing my ankle, but there was no time for play. Violet was family, more than any remaining blood relatives. Pulling on sweats and galoshes, I grabbed my keys and headed for the door. It was April in New England. I wouldn’t look any odder than most of my neighbors here in Cambridge, and I was making tracks to help a friend in need.
# # #
“Yo! Violet? Caro?” I’d driven over to Vi’s, but by the time I tromped around the back of the sprawling green and gold Victorian known as Helmhold House, officially the Helmhold Home for Wayward Cats, the mud had managed to seep up to the ankles of my new yellow boots. Which were leaking already. “Hello?” At least it wasn’t snow. But the lack of response was worrying me more than the creeping damp. “Vi?”
I hopped in the mud, trying to balance on my warmer foot while peeking through the back door. Nothing, despite my repeated knocking. If I reached up, I could just grab the top of the door frame and—yes—see into the enclosed porch. But before I could examine the living room beyond, I fell back, barely righting myself before I landed in the muddy yard.
Catching my breath, I looked around one more time. Patti lived beyond the hedge, her neat-as-a-pin split level a strange contrast to the colorful shelter. Would Violet have given her realtor neighbor a key? My punk rocker friend was as different from her prim neighbor as their properties, but I needed a way in. Unless…yes, there was one large rock back here. If I could roll it over, I bet I could at least get a clear view into the house. I caught myself trying to dry my wet hands on my jacket before reaching for the muddy rock and shook my head. What was I thinking? Life before coffee wasn’t sensible. But as I grabbed the stone and rolled it, I remembered. This was Violet’s not-too-subtle hiding place. Sure enough, taped underneath the miniature boulder was her back door key.
“Hello?” I called softly as I let myself in. No sense giving anyone a fright. A marmalade short hair came running. Head butting me, he began to purr as I scooped him up and closed the door behind me. “Vi? Caro?”
I kicked off my boots and wiped my wet bare feet on the well-scratched sisal mat before proceeding into the living room. “Anybody home?”
Sprawled out on a sofa was my buddy. Her mouth was open, her purple hair matted, and her face pale, dead to the world.
# # #
“Violet!” I dropped the cat, who skedaddled with an annoyed mew.
“Wuh?” With a snort, my friend awoke and blinked. “Oh, man.”
Seeing her put her head in her hands, I had to ask. “Hang- over?” After years as a straight-edge no-booze, no-drugs, no-meat purist, Violet enjoyed the occasional beer and burger. Maybe, if there’d been a tragedy…
“What? No, just no sleep. What time is it?” She squinted toward the sunny porch.
“Just after nine.” Crack of dawn to folks like us, and Violet suddenly focused, taking in my odd attire in the morning light. “And you? Oh, sorry. When I got your machine, I figured you were at Bill’s, you’d get it when you got home.”
“Not to worry. You didn’t wake me. Patti did.” I didn’t want to get into why I had been at home. My long-term guy and I had been on the outs for weeks now, and I suspected that Violet secretly sided with him. “But she said something about your cats being poisoned? So then, when I heard your message and I couldn’t reach you—”
“Oh, sorry.” My diminutive friend stood and stretched, all five-foot-one of her. “I wanted to warn you. Didn’t mean to cause a panic. Though, I’ll tell you, last night things got hairy.”
“Tell.” The marmalade cat returned and flopped on the floor in front of me, his thick short fur warm against my bare feet. He was obviously healthy, and whatever crisis had occurred seemed to be under control. Breathing easier, I settled into the sofa and pulled the purring cat onto my lap.
“Well, I got in late. We had that gig out in Worcester.” Violet’s band, the Violet Haze Experience, was building a reputation all over New England. “We headlined and what with loading out, and getting everything back to the practice space, it must have been around three-thirty, close to four by the time I got in. Caro was out like a light.” Violet’s partner worked as a contractor, a mostly diurnal job. “I was creeping around with the lights off, when I first heard the hacking. You know, like a hairball?”
I did, indeed. Musetta’s fine medium-length fur came up regularly, no matter how careful I was about brushing her.
“So, I didn’t think much of it, not until I heard another cat— and then a third. Then, I figured at the very least I should clean up a bit. Why let Caro wake up in the morning to little wet piles of felt and puke?” Violet kept talking as she wandered into the kitchen. I let the cat jump down and followed her. Coffee was definitely in order.
“So I turned on the hall light, hoping it wouldn’t wake her and, man, what a mess.” Violet shook her head as the grinder got busy with an excellent aged Sumatra, dark roast. Bit by bit, bean by bean, she and Caro had been upgrading the shelter. “Cat vomit and diarrhea everywhere—and I mean everywhere. Half the cats hidden away under the furniture like something was attacking them, the other half lying around so listless I started to really worry. That’s when it hit me that they must have eaten poison. There must have been something making them sick like that. But I didn’t know what. I called Rachel’s beeper and left a message with her service and started the most out-of-it cats on subcutaneous hydration drips. I figured it couldn’t hurt ‘em. It’s just saline, right?”
I shrugged. Violet would be finishing up her undergrad degree this spring, with a heavy emphasis on “pre vet” courses.
“Anyway, they started to perk up right away. Murray—your golden boy over there?—he was totally out of it, and look at him now.
“At some point Rachel got back to me, must have been close to dawn. She said it did sound like they’d eaten something bad, so I should just wrap everything up, keep them on plain water. The good news is, she said that if they’d gotten at rat poison, or, more likely a poisoned rat, they’d have been a lot sicker. I didn’t lose any of them, Theda. They’re all as healthy as Murray today. But I was still up cleaning and checking sub-Q bags when Caro’s alarm went off this morning. She helped with the rest of it, and I was just going to truck the food dishes over to Rachel’s office when I thought I’d sit down for a minute—and here you are.” “Wow, that sounds horrible.” I took two oversize mugs from the cabinet and helped myself to milk from the fridge while Vi poured. She kept the real stuff for me; soy is fine, but not in coffee. “But why do you say ‘poison’? I mean, couldn’t it just have been something that went bad? A kitty stomach flu or something?”
“I wish.” She threw back the mug as if it were toxic. The soy milk, I was sure. “There are a lot of cranks out there, Theda.” She reached for the real stuff this time, as she refilled. “You should see the letters. I’ll show you later.”
She knew me well enough to know that I’d ask. I’m a journalist, not a private investigator, but sometimes the two fields overlap. “Well,” I savored my own coffee. “I’m glad everyone pulled through. Sounds like a horrible night.” I looked back to see Murray groom, extending one leg to work on his toes, revealing the pink pads beneath the dark orange fur. “I must say, the place looks good. Smells fine, too.” Only a few of us hardy cat lovers, I realized, would be able to enjoy a fine brew while sniffing for cat poo. “Simple Solution?”
“That and leaving the windows open since dawn.” We took our coffee back into the living room. This time I checked the sofa before I sat down. It was clean. “But I need to get all their food and toys checked out before I have a riot on my hands. Who knows what was in the food, or where else it is. Wanna help?” I thought of Musetta, who had been working it hard— rubbing aggressively against my shins—before I left. She hadn’t understood why I’d removed her food dish and not replaced it. I thought of her sick, her green eyes dull. Her white belly heaving, her stout little form writhing on the floor. I began pulling on my boots.