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.



Racing across a maze of village rooftops toward the window where the black tail had disappeared, Joe Grey slipped under the screen and paused, crouching on the sill. He was in the upstairs office of Charles, Ltd., Men's Clothier. Their logo shone at him from a stack of the store's printed boxes. Dropping to the desk, he scanned the cluttered room. He did not see Azrael.

Most of these second floor offices led down by a narrow stair to a back stockroom that opened to the shop. In some, in locked fire files or safes, the owner kept cash on hand.

Strange that he did not smell Azrael, smelled only the aroma of an elderly female cat. She sat on a shelf in the far corner watching him belligerently, her black tail switching--the fat black shop cat, sour-natured and reclusive, seldom venturing out of doors.

Was that the black tail he had followed, and not Azrael?

The old female hissed at him, leaped to the nearest desk and sprayed the wall, defiantly marking her territory. Now he could smell nothing else.

Jumping to the floor, Joe sniffed around the stairs. He could not detect the tomcat and he heard nothing from the store below, although when Azrael and old Greeley broke into a shop they weren't quiet--they argued in loud whispers, the old man as hard-headed as the black tomcat.

Padding down the stairs, he circled the shop, brushing against expensive wool suits and nosing behind counters. He could detect no scent of the pair; the stink of the old lady upstairs still filled his nostrils. He found nothing disturbed around the cash register, nothing out of place, no one in the storeroom. Angry at his mistake, he fled upstairs again and out the window to pad along the edge of the roofs, looking over them, wishing he hadn't lost Gail.

He searched for the look-alikes for some time, then headed again for their motel--passing Alice Manning, who stood below him in the shadows near the Shrimp Bowl. He guessed this was Alice, dressed in khaki shirt and skirt. Gail and Dorothy had been wearing jeans, Beverly a pants suit. Trying to sort out the four look-alikes was enough give any cat fits. He could see, through the restaurant window, that Beverly Barker had left. A waiter was clearing the table.

Making his way over tarpaper and shingles to the Wanderer, he dropped down into its patio just as the courthouse clock struck nine. The women's motel room was still dark, the window still open, and there was no sound--but someone had opened the drapery.

Quietly working the screen free with his claws, he took a good look around, then slipped inside.

The soft lights from the patio bathed the room, picking out the open, half-empty suitcases and scattered clothes. Still no sound, no movement. He could not sort one woman's scent from the other. Their mix of perfumes and lotions filled every space, making his nose burn.

In Gail's open suitcase, under her robe, lay a black cat mask, a black leotard, black, soft boots and a pair of black suede gloves, thin and pliable--and smelling of brine.

Digging deeper, he found only jeans and underwear. The bottom of the suitcase was fitted with a zippered pocket, locked with one of those little combination locks designed to secure luggage that could be easily slit open with any sharp instrument--but not with a cat's claws. It would take a lot of raking to tear that dense nylon. Dragging a paw across the pocket, he thought it might contain a few papers, certainly nothing thicker. He returned the clothes as neatly as he could, pawing everything back, and stood a moment looking at a jacket that hung over a chair by the door, studying its primitive, multi-colored designs. Latin American. How interesting.

But then, leaping to the dresser, nosing through a pile of papers, he unearthed a motel note pad where someone had written, Festival rehearsal Wednesday, 7 p.m.

This was Friday. Frances Farrow had died Thursday morning, the day after the rehearsal.

That night, after the three women rehearsed their number, had they gone somewhere for a late supper, maybe a few drinks? In the small hours, had Frances Farrow gone off alone, perhaps walked along the sea, getting her feet wet? Before dawn, alone, had she wandered into the patio of Otter Pine Inn? Maybe saw the tearoom door ajar and went inside--blundering into the burglary in progress?

And ended up dead.

Maybe she had grabbed for the thief, meaning to stop him or her, and the thief hit her--accidentally killed her?

Conjecture. All conjecture. Too many possibilities--as frustrating as hunting invisible mice in a glass house.

Returning to Gail's suitcase, he sniffed at the gloves again, at the scent of brine, then retrieved a plastic bag from the wastebasket. Lifting each glove by its edge, he dropped them in.

He tossed the rest of the room as methodically as he could, going through suitcases and makeup bags. Standing beside Dorothy's suitcase, he pawed her silk slip aside to reveal a small automatic, with the clip in. Maybe a .22 or .25 caliber, a little, ladies' gun that would fit nicely into pocket or purse.

The brine-scented gloves were Gail's, the gun was Dorothy's. And then, standing in the sink pawing through a flowered cosmetic kit on the bathroom shelf, he found a small, zippered makeup bag that felt like it contained bullets. Attempting to slide the zipper, he got it on the fifth pull, nearly tearing out a claw.

Bullets. Soft nosed. Maybe .38s. Certainly a larger caliber than the automatic. He'd watched often enough when Max Harper and Clyde Damen cleaned their guns after going to the firing range to know the difference.

Well, there was no law against having bullets or a gun, even in California, if one followed the state's intricate rules. But two armed women? What did that add up to?

Or did Dorothy have two guns? He had, with the reek of perfume and hair spray numbing his nose, no notion whose cosmetic bag this was--he felt helpless. He had temporarily lost his most valuable skill.

Well, he hadn't really expected to find the stolen money from the inn--but he was disappointed that he didn't. Out of sorts, growling softly, he was fighting to open a drawer of the night stand when a click at the door sent him across the room and out the window, dragging the gloves in their plastic bag.

Crouching under the bushes, he could see nothing. He heard someone step inside, heard the door close. The windows remained dark. He could hear them moving around, pulling out drawers, apparently searching just as he had himself searched, by the soft light from the patio.

Leaving the plastic bag among the leaves and dirt, he eased up onto the sill again, trying to remain within the rhododendron bush, out of sight--looking in at Alice Manning. Same khaki skirt and shirt, same rope sandals. Where had she gotten a key?

But that would be easy enough. Stop in the motel office, say she'd lost hers. She looked exactly like the three occupants; who would know?

She knelt beside the open suitcase from which he had taken the gloves, her back to him, her tight khaki skirt hiked above her knees. Lifting out the leotard and boots and the cat mask, she removed the clothes beneath. He couldn't see what she was doing, with her back to him, but she worked at something for a few moments then he heard the click of the lock and the zipper sliding. He couldn't tell whether she was putting something into the bag or taking something out. He heard a faint rustling, like paper. He was so interested he nearly pushed on inside to have a look. And why not? Just a little friendly session of pet the kitty.

Except, with Azrael mixed up in this gig, he wasn't sure who knew about the talents of certain cats. He could walk right into trouble.

And, was this really Alice Manning? He could detect no human scent at all, over the melange of lotions and perfumes. Before he could move, she zipped up the compartment again. As the lock clicked, four blocks away the courthouse clock struck 9:30. Patiently, Joe waited for her to leave.

She didn't leave. She moved idly around the room as if preoccupied, glancing at the strewn clothes and into the open suitcases, but touching nothing else. When she turned toward the window Joe lost his nerve and dropped down again into the bushes, crouching beside the gloves, puzzled. She stood just above him, looking out, then slid the window closed. As she pulled the curtains, Joe took the evidence bag in his teeth--he hoped the gloves turned out to be evidence--and headed across the village for the back door of the Molena Point PD, looking, he supposed, like he was hauling a pair of dead rats all done up in plastic for the home freezer.

Copyright 2001 by Shirley Rousseau Murphy. All rights reserved.

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