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.



Joe Grey sat hidden among the cushions of the window seat, his sleek fur blending with the velvet, his yellow eyes slitted in speculation as he peered out at the crowd that had gathered around the door of the tearoom. Locals and tourists, held back by yellow crime tape and by two uniformed officers, observed the pretty young victim and speculated on the cause of her death. She lay across the tiles, covered by a sheet that had been pulled back to reveal her familiar face and bright blond hair and the top of her black leotard. A man stood over her shouting at Police Captain Harper and ineffectually trying to shake Harper; a handsome young man, tanned, dressed in T-shirt and denim shorts.

"That woman isn't Alice. Where's Alice? That officer came to get me, said Alice was dead. Where is she? What's happened to my wife! Where is Alice?"

Harper held him at arms length. "If this isn't your wife, Manning, cool down. Get hold of yourself."

Manning stared at Harper, anger and fear twisting his face.

"When did you last see your wife, Manning?"

"I was asleep when she left the room this morning. She likes to walk the beach early. She..." The young man straightened, staring past Harper as a blond woman dressed in khaki shirt and shorts entered the tearoom--short golden hair, a turned up nose and blue eyes--an exact double for the corpse.

She stared down at the dead woman, her eyes widening, and she went very pale. Her husband grabbed her, pulling her close. "They told me you were dead. I thought... Where were you?"

"Walking the beach, you knew that. Who... What happened?"

"We don't know yet," Harper said. "Mrs. Manning, would you join me in the pantry where we can talk? I'll need to ask you some questions. Alone, please."

She took Harper's arm, leaning on him, looking back at the corpse and at her husband.

Joe Grey followed them, trotting swiftly beneath the tables, his short, docked tail straight out behind him like a pointer tracking its prey.

Joe hadn't had much of a tail since he was a kitten, when a drunk stepped on his tail and broke it. He was rescued from the gutter by Clyde Damen, who had the hurt part removed. He'd hardly missed his tail, he was so glad to find a caring human. They'd been together ever since. Now, following Captain Harper, he paused only when he sensed another cat behind him.

He looked back at his tabby lady, her green eyes filled with questions.

"I heard the sirens," Dulcie said softly.

"Don't know what killed her," Joe said. "No mark on her. They don't know who she is, yet."

Otter Pine Inn, three days before, had hosted a bevy of look-alikes of the inn's owner, Patty Rose. Lovely ladies who could double for Patty as she had appeared in her old movies, made in the thirties and forties. The winner, Alice Manning, had received two luxurious weeks in the bridal suite, with her husband. An elegant second honeymoon, Alice had told the press.

After the contest, four of the finalists had remained in the village for vacations. And why not? They had paid for gas or plane tickets, so why not take advantage? The most vocal of the four was Gail Gantry, who had gotten the other three women to join her in a simple dance routine for the village cat festival. Two of them were would-be entertainers, and Gail had done some little theater. Joe and Dulcie thought that must be the kind of person who entered these contests, someone who wanted the exposure, wanted to further their career. The four ladies had sold their act to the cat festival committee, not for money, but for sponsorship by local shops in exchange for using their photographs in newspaper ads: four Patty Rose look-alikes, dressed in black leotards for their number as dancing cats.

And now one of them is dead, Dulcie thought. It must have been terrifying for Alice Manning, to see the body of her double lying there.

Slipping into the pantry, behind a serving cart, the cats listened to Harper question Alice Manning then question her husband, each separately.

The couple's answers matched--responses so bland and untutored that surely they were telling the truth. They did not know which young woman this was, who had been killed. They had not socialized with any of the finalists, or seen much of them after Alice won the contest, except for some photograph sessions. "We assumed," Alice told Harper, "that they all went home."

Harper did not point out that a person could hardly walk through the village without falling over one or the other of the look-alikes, whose faces appeared daily in the Molena Point Gazette. The Mannings seemed hardly aware of this, as if the young couple had spent the last days in a little world totally their own.

When they'd gone, Harper sent an officer for the restaurant manager, a thin, dark-haired man with a high forehead and a neatly clipped goatee.

Harper examined the smaller man. "I'd like to see the restaurant safe, Mr. Demmons."

"The safe? Oh, my..." Demmons swallowed. "You think there was a burglary, too? Come this way, then. First, let me call Ms. Rose's secretary." He smiled up at Harper. "No one's notified Patty Rose yet. She likes to sleep late." Demmons picked up the pantry phone.

As he made his call, the cats slipped through the shadows to the manager's office. Leaping atop a carved armoire, they peered over, Dulcie studying the handsome room, the intricately carved desk and book shelves, the rich and fragile antique rug. "Lovely," she whispered. As the two men entered, they crouched lower.

Watching Demmons move the rosewood and ivory screen and spin the dial of the safe, Joe could feel Dulcie's heart pounding against him and her tail twitching. Her green eyes burned with interest, as predatory as any cop.

There had been nine burglaries in the seaside village in the past week, all in bars or exclusive shops, their safes or cash registers opened and emptied, and small, expensive items taken. The money stolen was some sixteen thousand dollars, but the merchandise was valued at far more. There were no marks on the safes, and no prints. The only sign of entry would be a second story window or a skylight, left undamaged but unlocked.

Peering into the safe, the manager looked sadly at Captain Harper. The interior loomed black and empty. Not so much as a dust speck.

Wiping at his goatee, Demmons opened the top drawer of the desk, retrieved a slip of paper, and handed it to Harper. "Four thousand, four hundred and nineteen dollars. That's the amount we locked up with last night, from the bar and restaurant. I..."

Voices rose from the tearoom, a woman's angry voice--and Patty Rose swept into the office, pulling an embroidered dressing gown around her, making the grand entrance. She stared at the safe. "One of the look-alikes stole? Came here for the contest, then stole from me?"

She looked at Harper. "But who killed her? And how did they get in?"

But as Harper tried to console her, Dulcie stiffened, staring beyond them to the window.

Behind Harper, a cat peered in. A big cat, black as soot.

"Azrael," Dulcie breathed, so softly no human could hear. "It can't be, he's three thousand miles away, playing at voodoo in Central America."

"Afraid not," Joe said. "His scent is all over the safe."

Dulcie's ears went back, and her voice was a hiss. "That explains the thefts, the high windows left unlocked. Where's his light-fingered partner?"

Last summer, the cats had watched Azrael and his human pal at their midnight work, Azrael opening a vulnerable window and slipping inside to unlock the shop door. They had watched the old man clean out cash registers, watched him drill a safe. It distressed them that one of their own kind, with their own special talents, had fallen to the level of a human thief.

For Joe Grey and Dulcie, their dual natures were a source of wonder. Their command of human speech, their human perceptions and understanding, coupled with their keen hearing and noses and night vision, and with their ability to get into small places, provided superior crime solving skills. They had the best of both worlds, and they put it to the best use they knew.

But those same talents, in ebony coated Azrael, added up to an underhanded feline crime spree.

And there he was outside the window, eyeing the empty safe with smug satisfaction.

"And I not only smelled Azrael around the safe," Joe said, "I smelled brine. Same as on the corpse."

"You're saying Azrael killed that woman. Oh, I don't think..."

"No. I'm saying she was in here. Or someone with the scent of the sea on them. The carpet wasn't damp, and no smell there. Just around the safe. I don't understand yet what happened." He looked at Dulcie, his yellow eyes burning with challenge. "But we'll find out."

Copyright 2001 by Shirley Rousseau Murphy. All rights reserved.

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