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.



Dulcie reared up, looking into the brightly lighted display window, her tabby paws against the glass, her green eyes glowing; she never tired of the shop's imports, the brilliantly colored Guatemalan jackets and weavings, the San Blas appliqués, the painted Mexican figures. Close beside her, Joe Grey watched her tenderly, always moved by his lady's passion for the beautiful and exotic.

They had met the shop's owner, Ms. Sue Marble, at about the same time they met Azrael and old Greeley. The cats had been greatly amused when the lonely, white-haired lady and Greeley became an item and took off to Central America together, Sue on another buying trip, Greeley returning to his home--with Azrael in his carrier, of course. Sue knew nothing about the black cat's hidden talents.

Now the couple had been gone for nearly a year, and Azrael was back in the village with no sign of either Greeley or Sue--and the mysterious burglaries had resumed.

"That jacket in the window," Joe said, pawing at the glass. "The red one, woven with birds and animals. Where does that come from?"

"Ecuador, I think. Or maybe Peru. Why?"

"I saw one like it last night, when I tossed the motel room of the look-alikes."

"Maybe one of them bought, it here. They could..."

"It was worn, Dulcie. Faded, not new."

Dulcie sat down on the sidewalk, the concrete still warm from the vanished sun. "So what are you saying?"

"I'm wondering if one of those three women has been in South America."

She smiled, her whiskers twitching. "You're thinking one of them has been in Panama, and that's how Azrael got back?" She licked her paw. "That's reaching for it. What ever...?"

"There were cat hairs on the jacket. Black cat hairs."

"You are maddening. Why didn't you say so!"

Joe smiled.

"Could you smell his scent?"

"Not in that motel room. Enough perfume and lotions in there to deaden the nose of an elephant."

"In Sue's last letter to Wilma, she said she and Greeley were getting married. She said nothing about coming back. She seems very happy, making her buying trips out of Panama to Peru and Guatemala and shipping the purchases back here, to her shop manager."

Dulcie frowned, her ears going flat. "She did say she wasn't happy about Greeley's cat, that he'd turned out to be a problem. Remember how, in the beginning, she called him a dear, handsome fellow! She thought he was so regal. Maybe Greeley and the tomcat were burglarizing shops in Panama, maybe she found out. Maybe she threw Azrael out of the house."

"That wouldn't explain how he got here. Greeley has no friends in the village to send Azrael to, only his sister. And Mavity hates that cat."

"But maybe Greeley is here," Dulcie said. "He'd be staying with Mavity. Let's have a look." And beneath the darkening evening sky, the cats headed for the marsh and Mavity's little fishing shack. East three blocks through the village, and over seven to the marshy shore of the bay, then along through the cattails and sea grass, the mud cold beneath their paws and smelling of dead fish, to a long row of houses standing on mud-blackened stilts.

Scenting around the pilings and around the tires of Mavity's old VW bug, they found no hint of Greeley. But the tomcat had definitely been there. His day-old aroma was on the steps, and on a rusty porch chair as if he might have slept there.

The kitchen window that Azrael had once used as a private door was tightly closed. A light burned within. Leaping to the sill, Joe could not smell Azrael along the edge of the window, could smell only the ham and beans that must have been Mavity's supper. A single clean bowl stood in the drain basket, with one knife, fork and spoon. He could see Mavity, beyond the open kitchen; the small, elderly woman curled up on the couch with a book, a blanket over her feet and a stack of romances on the table beside her. He watched her for a moment, purring, then dropped down again to where Dulcie sat on the cold, damp ground among the tarred posts.

"No sign of Greeley," Joe said. "If Azrael's alone, maybe he sleeps here for a few hours--Mavity would never know."

"Do you suppose he's lonely? Comes here to feel at home?"

Joe Grey snorted. "More likely cold, after the heat of Panama. And looking to see if he can rip off Mavity in some way."

As they headed back to the village, the first star gleamed above them. Trotting through the darkening gardens, brushing among geraniums whose scent they would carry on their fur for hours, they were headed for Joe's house when they saw Larry Cruz's red car turning the corner toward Otter Pine Inn.

Quickly following him, they watched him park and saunter onto the patio. But when they trotted in past the stink of exhaust and hot rubber, he had vanished.

Beyond the mullioned windows of the tearoom, a soft light burned, and they could hear women's voices. Teatime was long past. Padding to the stained glass door, the cats listened.

"It's Patty Rose and Alice," Dulcie whispered, nosing at the slightly open door.

Slipping in behind the baker's rack with its potted ferns--where, so recently, Frances Farrow had lain dead--they watched the two women, sitting at a small wicker table with their drinks, deep in conversation. A generation apart, they looked more alike than most mothers and daughters, Alice blond and fresh and exactly as Patty had looked in her old movies. Patty was still a looker, too, her hair skillfully cut and colored, her figure still slim. Despite her wrinkles, Patty was still a beautiful woman.

"Then you hadn't seen Larry Cruz since you left Santa Monica?" Patty was saying.

"No. And I certainty didn't expect to see him here. That makes me so angry, that he'd follow me here."

"Maybe it wasn't you he followed. Had you thought about that? When you learned to dive from him, were all your lessons alone?"

"Yes. I didn't get very good. But ... that's how I became involved with him. So foolish. I can never make that up to my husband." Alice sighed. "I couldn't help but tell Jim. I don't keep secrets well," she said softly.

"Before you left Santa Monica, you never met Gail or saw her?"

Alice spilled her drink, grabbed some paper napkins and bent to wipe it up.

Patty Rose watched her with interest. "I know Santa Monica is only part of the LA sprawl, but you both lived near the beach. She must have been there for two or three months before you moved away. Strange that you or one of your friends weren't aware of a woman who looks exactly like you."

"You'd think so." Alice shook her head. "I never saw her, never heard of her."

"Did you ever suspect, when you were seeing Larry, that he was into any kind of trouble?"

The question seemed difficult for Alice. "No, but ... I'm not surprised, the way, after we broke up, that he kept bothering me, kept coming around, wouldn't leave me alone. I asked the police what I could do, but they were busy and there wasn't much. Larry was one of the reasons we moved."

"Maybe he discovered Gail after you left. It's possible he followed her up here, pestering her the way he pestered you. The way he pestered me last year."

"As if he has some kind of fixation about the women in your old films?" Alice said, as if the idea had just occurred to her. "When I saw him with Gail, I thought, good for her. Good riddance. I never--I don't think I ever saw him with any of the others. But Patty, if he was such a bother to you, why did you hire him?"

"I didn't think he was dangerous. And I thought it was better to have him where I could see him. And I must confess, I hoped that when the contest rolled around, he might take up with one of the contestants. I never dreamed that it would end like this," Patty whispered. "In such an ugly way."

Patty drained her glass. "Will you lead the parade with me, Alice, in my car? I think it will take all of us together to help get over this nightmare."

Alice hesitated. "I'd rather not. I guess I'm more frightened of Larry ... more frightened by Frances's death than I knew."

Patty nodded. "If you change your mind..." She got up, pushing back her chair. Before she turned, the cats slipped out onto the patio and around the corner ... nearly under the feet of Larry Cruz where he stood hidden among the oleanders, against the wall of the tearoom. Listening. Scowling, as Alice walked away.

Copyright 2001 by Shirley Rousseau Murphy. All rights reserved.

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