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.



In Moreno's Grill, beneath the table in a shadowed corner booth, the two cats pressed as far away from the shoes of Joe Grey's human housemate, and of police chief Max Harper, as they could squeeze. The carpet smelled of stale French fries. It was the afternoon after the burglary at Charles, Ltd.

Harper and Clyde Damen liked to wind down at Moreno's after work, isolated in the far corner of the quiet bar where they could speak privately, no nosy idlers to overhear. Clyde was the only civilian with whom the police chief talked freely. The two men, having grown up together, were as close as brothers.

"Burglar alarm was disconnected," Harper said. "No one knew about the break-in until Chuck Connover went back to the store that night, some time before 10, to pick up some papers he'd meant to work on. He started to turn off the alarm, then saw that it was off. Found the cash register open and empty. Went on into the back room, which was foolish. Said he was relieved when he found the safe locked. He didn't open it until we got there, didn't know until then that it had been cleaned out. The burglary could have happened anywhere between 8, when he left the store, and 10. We found no prints."

"You pick up any fibers or hairs, or anything dropped?"

"The usual dust and lint, sent off to the lab. Found some hairs on the desk beside the safe--black animal hairs. Likely from Chuck's old cat, she's all over the shop."

Under the table, Joe and Dulcie looked at each other. Chuck Connover's old cat? Or Azrael? But bigger puzzles than the identity of a black cat filled their thoughts.

They had spent the early dawn on the rocky cliffs south of the village, watching Larry Cruz suit up beside the tailgate of his red Acura. Larry had met no one, and had hardly spoken to the other divers. Watching him pull on his flippers and back into the water, they could see him for a while through the clear blue swells before he vanished, where the sea went black along the cliffs. He came out an hour later, and did not have any fish or shellfish. But he seemed to have done nothing different than any of the other divers.

Above their heads, Harper said, "I don't like to lay this stuff on you, Clyde. You're the only one I'd tell how uneasy it makes me. I laugh about it, in the squad room."

"What stuff?"

"The phantom snitch is back. The messenger who leaves evidence in my car and at the back door of the station. Same guy who tipped us where the weapon was hidden that killed Samuel Beckwhite, and has been phoning me ever since. Same voice, same turns of speech."

Beneath the table, Clyde shifted his feet with unease. "You told me it was a man and a woman. And that their information is reliable," he said testily.

"A hundred percent," Harper said. "But still they make me nervous. Last night, someone left a plastic bag on my desk, at about the time the commercial burglary report came in. Bag contained a pair of woman's gloves. Black suede. Sent them to the lab this morning."

The men were silent. Someone set down his glass. "I can't discount these tips," Harper said. "They've helped us in past cases. But they're mighty hard to explain to the court--I've never seen these two, I have no information about them. Usually, I know my snitches."

"The gloves had something to do with the burglary?" Clyde asked innocently. "Or maybe with the death of Frances Farrow? But you keep the station doors locked at night, keep that back door locked all the time. It would have to be one of your own people, to leave evidence there on your desk."

"Don't you think I asked!"

In the shadows, Dulcie's green eyes shone with amusement. Clyde said nothing more, and soon, when Harper turned the conversation to his horses, Joe nudged Dulcie and they moved swiftly through the shadows beneath the tables, streaked past the bar and through the kitchen and out the screen door, into the narrow alley.

"There's something I didn't tell you," Joe said, crouching beside the garbage cans. "Something that might explain why we haven't seen old Greeley with the black tomcat. Come on." And, ignoring the heady scent of raw fish and meat wrappers, he headed fast up Ocean Avenue, dodging around the feet of tourists.

"What? Where are we going?" Dulcie hissed, galloping beside him.

He didn't answer, but lowered his head and ran, swerving down a side street--stopping suddenly when a black cat loomed out of the shadows, blocking their path.

Azrael, black as sin, his tail lashing, his amber eyes narrowed and cold. He drew himself taller, bowing his neck, looking down at Joe. "So, little gray kitty. You are still following me? Still playing detective? What, you poor creature, do you imagine I've done now?"

Joe Grey smiled, his yellow eyes assessing Azrael, his sleek gray coat rippling over hard muscle. "I had no thought of following you, you pitiful mouser. Though I see you are still playing at your mindless games, stealing money that only your whiskey-sodden partner can make use of."

Azrael laughed. "Not any more. That old fake is long gone--this tomcat works alone."

"And where did you leave him?"

"Walking the streets of Panama, if it's any of your business. Rolling drunk. Maybe dead by now, mugged in some alley."

"And you stowed away on your own, back to the states," Joe said indulgently.

Azrael laughed. "I have my contacts. That was a nice take, by the way, from Charles, Ltd."

"No cat on this earth, you poor, worm-ridden beast, can manipulate the dial of a safe. No cat can turn that little wheel with the required precision."

But Joe wondered. If a cat could turn a doorknob, as Joe and Dulcie and Azrael all could do, what might Azrael have taught himself, with sufficient practice? Was the dial of a safe beyond a clever cat's talents? With a cat's keen hearing, could not the tumblers tell him all he needed to know?

Joe looked the tomcat over. "Who brought you back from Panama? What gullible human did you con into a plane ride?" Though if Joe's suspicion was right, the idea that had sent him hurrying from Moreno's Grill, Azrael's arrival was easily enough explained. "Who did you con into taking you aboard in a little wire cage? Or did you spend 12 hours in the luggage hold, freezing your sorry tail?"

The black tom leaped on Joe, all teeth and claws, the two raking each other in a whirlwind of hard, furry bodies, thumping against concrete and against the brick wall, a war of pent-up rage that ceased only when the third party threw her weight into the battle, slashing both toms and screaming at them until they broke apart to stare at her.

She stood between them, holding Azrael's gaze until the two toms moved far enough apart to formally end the battle. But she was shivering with fear. What she wanted to do was bolt. She'd always been afraid of Azrael, even when once, long ago, he had charmed her. His look at her now was deadly--an evil smile, the smile of a black shark heaving up from the darkest seas.

And then he turned and sauntered away, lashing his long black tail.

"Why did you do that?" Joe growled. "Why didn't you let me finish him? You made me look a fool."

"Not at all. You would have killed each other. Look at you. Your ear's torn, blood running down your face--your shoulder torn. Although you sent him away with as much blood," she said softly, licking his ravaged ear. She watched Azrael, a black speck far in the distance, disappearing down an alley.

"I think I know how he got here," Joe said, "and who our burglar is." He led Dulcie beneath the oak trees, in the gathering dusk, to her favorite shop.

Standing close together, rearing up on their hind paws, they looked into the show window at the feast of bright colors and intricate patterns. "Here's the link," Joe said, "between Azrael and one of the look-alikes--maybe the best connection we have yet to the death of Frances Farrow."

Copyright 2001 by Shirley Rousseau Murphy. All rights reserved.

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