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.

PART 1 PART 2 PART 3 PART 4
PART 5 PART 6 PART 7 PART 8
PART 9 PART 10 PART 11 PART 12


PART 3

The evening paper lay on the front porch of the white Cape Cod cottage, blocking Joe Grey's cat door. Trotting up the steps, he glanced around to see if any neighbors were looking, then pawed the Gazette open to the front page, leaving damp paw marks across the newsprint.

ACTRESS DEAD IN TEAROOM, MONEY MISSING.

Pretending to pat at a bug, Joe read quickly:

Little theater actress Frances Farrow, a resident of Phoenix, was found dead this morning in the tearoom of Otter Pine Inn, possibly from a heart attack. When officers searched the premises, they found over four thousand dollars missing from the safe. A connection has not been established. Miss Farrow did not work at Otter Pine Inn nor was she a guest. She was one of four women who remained in the village after competing as finalists in the Patty Rose look-alike contest. The only wound she sustained was a shallow abrasion and cut on the left side of the chest, where Miss Farrow apparently received a blow.

In rare cases, Coroner John Bern told reporters, a blow in that area can jolt the electrical circuit of nerves in the heart that control contractions, and the heart stops. In such an occurrence, called commotio cordis, there is no evidence of damage to the heart. Police...

Joe hadn't finished reading when Clyde's yellow antique roadster pulled into the carport. Joe's housemate swung out, took one look at his cat reading the paper on the front porch, and double-timed across the lawn, snatching the offending newsprint from under Joe in a blatant show of rudeness. "What are you doing reading in front of the neighbors!"

Hissing, Joe lightly clawed Clyde's hand.

"Stop it! Now look! Blood all over the cuff of my lab coat."

"One drop of blood. You already have grease on your sleeve."

There was no argument that Clyde, mentor to the village's most expensive imported cars, was a fine master mechanic, but in Joe's opinion, that lab coat was a gross affectation.

"To say nothing," Clyde continued, "of muddy pawprints trashing the front page!" He stared at the headline, then at Joe.

"I see." He read quickly. "Some woman has a heart attack, and in your insane feline mind, you decide it's murder."

"She was thirty-some years old."

"It happens."

"Coroner doesn't think that's what happened," Joe said. "Thinks it could have been a blow to the chest. Finish reading. The coroner..."

Clyde read a few lines, then fixed Joe with a hard look. "The coroner says that kind of freak accident's possible, and the newspaper blows it all out of proportion. Why can't you...?"

"And what about the empty safe? You have a handy explanation for that? What was she doing in there? She had to have broken in." Glaring at Clyde, Joe pushed in through his cat door and leaped into his own tattered, overstuffed chair that no human wanted to touch. Curling up and closing his eyes, he ignored Clyde until he smelled dinner cooking. Then he beat it into the kitchen to sit on the table, watching Clyde make clam pasta.

"Put in plenty of clams, I need my protein."

"Why? So you can track down some supposed killer?"

"One of the contest finalists is dead. Four thousand dollars is missing from the inn's safe, and the winner of the contest and her husband were scared out of their wits by the event. And you think I'm paranoid? And all of it mixed up with this stupid cat festival."

"The festival has no connection to the look-alike contest or to..."

"It doesn't? The four losers got involved in the cat festival--for the publicity and the perks. That's a connection." Joe Grey twitched a whisker. "Apparently all wanting to hit it big in show biz--and maybe one of them wants to hit it big at the bank, without bothering with show biz."

The back door rattled, the dog door swung in, and old Rube, the black Lab, shouldered through followed by the three family cats, wanting their suppers. As Clyde set the clam sauce on the back of the stove and began to open cans, Rube looked up at Joe wagging and grinning. Joe patted his nose with a soft paw. The cats smiled at Joe but kept their distance. Ever since he'd discovered he could speak, they hadn't really trusted him.

Neither Joe nor Dulcie knew why they were different. There were cats like them mentioned in obscure passages of Irish history, and in Celtic myth. And they were not alone. Azrael had likely sprung from the same ancestry--a fact that did not please Joe Grey.

"He's back," he told Clyde. "The black tomcat. Lurking around the inn this morning before they took the body away."

"Azrael? Come on. Greeley and that cat are in Panama. Some black cat wanders by, and you..."

"Dulcie saw him. And I smelled his stinking scent around the safe."

Clyde stopped dishing dog food, to look at Joe.

"Ten safes emptied in the past week," Joe reminded him.

"You think Azrael and Greeley did those?" Clyde set the animal's food on the floor. Washing his hands, he drained the spaghetti and dished up their dinners. Joe leaped onto the table. But they ate not speaking, Clyde reading the front page, Joe slurping up pasta as he went over the facts, trying out possible scenarios.

All five finalists had spent a weekend at Otter Pine Inn for the judging. Say the ladies were in and out of the dining room and tearoom, and passing the office. One of them figures there's a safe there, maybe moves the screen and spots it. Or maybe sees the manager come out with a money tray for the restaurant.

She stays in the village after Alice wins the contest, gets involved in the cat festival gig--and hears about the other burglaries. Decides to ride on someone's coat tails, use the festival as cover. Who knows what hidden talents those young women have besides song and dance? A little skill with the tumblers? She slips back into Otter Pine Inn to empty the safe.

But Greeley and Azrael are already there, the old man dumping the cash into a paper bag. What happens after that, Joe thought, is up for grabs. No one knows for sure, yet, how that woman died.

Wrong, Joe thought. Likely, by this time, the coroner has made a diagnosis, and Max Harper knows. And the tomcat smiled. Tonight was poker night. Even if Harper was on a case, he usually managed a short break. Harper said a few hands of poker helped him sort things out.

And Joe was right. An hour later, Max Harper sat down at the table, looking tired. "If I never see another hotel employee, I'll be happy."

Clyde cut the cards. Joe Grey hopped onto the table and lay down out of the way.

Harper gave him a look, but said nothing. "Interviewing all day. Every one of them afraid they might say something to get crosswise with Patty Rose, or get her in trouble. Hard to ease them into talking. And the cause of death is still vague."

"Medical examiner came up with nothing?"

"She was wearing a flat silver pendant, under her leotard. It was dented, and marked with her blood. Apparently this caused the abrasion--a hard blow to the chest. A few internal blood vessels broken. You saw the paper--maybe commotio cordis, maybe not."

Harper cut the cards and shoved them toward Clyde. "One of the gardeners, Larry Cruz, says he saw Alice Manning run out of the tearoom just before six this morning, before the janitors opened up. Says she hurried out, ran out of the inn into the street."

"Strange behavior for the contest winner. You believe him?"

Harper shrugged. "I'll take two cards. Cruz didn't tell me he's been dating one of the finalists, Gail Gantry, since she arrived. Patty Rose told me that."

"Gail's the one who organized that song and dance routine? Got them connected with the festival committee?"

"Right. Free publicity, free room at the Wanderer in return for using their photograph in the motel ads. She came around the station, asking for police support, which of course we wouldn't give her.

"She's hyper," Harper said, tossing in a chip. "Very wound up. Doesn't seem to be on drugs, just a go-getter. Pushy."

Listening, Joe Grey wanted to be moving, checking out these ladies--and checking out the gardener. He lay raggedly purring, playing with a poker chip. Who knew what he might overhear from this Larry Cruz? People would say anything, in front of a simple cat.


Copyright 2001 by Shirley Rousseau Murphy. All rights reserved.


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