Authors: Anna Kern
A PAW-SIBLE THEORY
(A Murfy the Cat Mystery)
To my son, James, who encouraged me from the start and patiently read the many versions of the first two chapters.
Thank you to my first readers for their insight and encouragement: Teresa Allan, Joann Gennari, and Lois Berardi Moltane. Thank you also to my publisher, Patricia Rockwell, for making it all possible.
“Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the Gods, the judge of words, the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle, thou are indeed…the Great Cat.”
––Inscription on the Royal Tombs at Thebes
“A cat is more intelligent than people believe, and can be taught any crime.”
In a Cat’s Eye
In April of this year, a crime was committed in the historic district of Beachside, a tourist town, not beachside as the name implies, but about three miles inland on the east coast of Florida.
The neighborhood surrounding the old downtown business area, and still in the process of revitalization, is a mix of architectural styles as are the people who live there a mix of young couples with children, as well as middle-aged and older retired folks who have lived there many years.
According to the dictionary definition, my human fits in the middle-age category. As far as I’m concerned, she is whom she has always been: Alyx Hille, five feet three inches tall, brown hair cut in a short, shaggy sort of style, hazel eyes, and a beautiful smile. She shares her home with two quirky female felines and me.
My name is Murfy. I’m also a Felis catus, only different––even though I look and behave like an ordinary longhaired, cream tabby with green eyes. So far, Alyx is the only one who has reason to believe that I’m not––ordinary that is.
On Saturday April 16, casually dressed in tan, cropped pants and a coral top, Alyx listened to the animated weather forecaster on the local news promise the kind of day that brought frostbitten northerners down south at that time of year: clear blue sky, mild temperature, and low humidity. I don’t know why, but she often apologized to visitors when the weather was less than perfect as if providing good weather was her personal responsibility. Strange as it seems, she wasn’t alone in that, others did the same thing.
Alyx reached for the remote, and the promo for what was coming up next caught her attention.
“Incarcerated ten years for a crime he didn’t commit, John Biggs was released from prison at noon yesterday. Listen to what his defense attorney David Hunter had to say.”
“The ugly truth is that we don’t live in a perfect world and for the sake of order, a judicial system is in place that finds, judges and punishes those who commit crimes against society, and because it is an imperfect world, sometimes the system fails. Those responsible for dispensing justice can and do make mistakes, at times allowing the guilty to walk away free and punishing the innocent at other times. This time the system worked and justice is served.”
David Hunter, considered handsome by human standards, looked the part of a successful attorney. The gray highlights at his temples accentuated his good looks, as did the perfect fit of his expensive gray suit.
Alyx turned off the TV in the living room, her favorite room in the house after she painted the walls antique white and added colorful Oriental rugs over the original wood floor. The new patio door, flanked by two tall windows, provided much needed light and a great view of the backyard for all of us.
As she walked past, I did a full body stretch and followed her to the kitchen where there was always a chance for a treat. She poured herself a fresh cup of coffee and carried it to the 1940’s enamel-top table and chairs une
arthed in her parents’ basement a few years earlier and the inspiration for the kitchen design. When asked, she said the table was a nostalgic reminder of her mother rolling out piecrusts for the frequent family gatherings that ended with her death, the saw marks on one of the chairs attesting to its previous role as a sawhorse for her father. The lemon-yellow walls reflected the sunlight streaming in from the bank of windows in the breakfast nook. Everyday dishes and cutlery sat on the counter along with the breakfast items––eggs, bacon and pancake mix.
Alyx unfolded the morning paper but didn’t show any interest in reading it.
“What do you think, Murfy?” she asked. “Should I have considered the offer? Will Maggie understand why I reacted so strongly? How do you think Ethan will take my suggestions? Will he listen this time?”
I figured she was probably vocalizing the thoughts meandering across her mind and I went back to the living room, leaving her sipping her coffee, and gazing out the window.
The stalker creeping up behind her had only one thought in mind; the brutal attack was swift, plunging Alyx into an abyss of darkness.
“I simply can’t resist a cat, particularly a purring one. They are the cleanest, cunningest, and most intelligent things I know, outside of the girl you love, of course.”
––Abroad with Mark Twain and Eugene Field,
The loud thud-crash bounced me out of my favorite chair and on my feet. Temporarily disoriented and unsure of what I had heard or where it came from, I zigzagged across the living room, torn between diving for cover and investigating the noise. Instinct told me to run; something else told me otherwise, and in that moment of indecision, Misty frantically fleeing from whatever she thought was chasing her, streaked past me and disappeared.
I listened for voices or other sounds and heard none.
The house was eerily quiet.
Alyx’s bedroom door was wide open. My step hesitant, all senses focused on the job at hand, I crossed the threshold and nervously swept the room––nothing there, nothing out of place. I peered in the attached bathroom, stretching my neck as far as I could without actually entering, and nothing there either.
Belly touching the floor, ears close to my head, I crept down the dark hall toward the front part of the house where the partially closed door to the guest bath gave me pause; something was on the floor in front of the vanity. I pushed the door open and pounced, but the thing did not fight back––it was just a bunched up rug, the dim light giving it a sinister appearance. A quick glance over my shoulder assured me no one saw me attack the rug, and I moved on to the second bedroom where the two large windows left nothing hidden.
At that point, Misty appeared at my side from wherever she’d been hiding, apparently no longer in fear for her life and meowed once. A vigorous slash of the tail and she obediently fell in line behind me, her head turning from side to side, ears swiveling as we made our way to the kitchen.
Misty had questions. I had no answers. Something was very wrong. In the kitchen, I saw Alyx slumped forward on the kitchen table, a dark fluid oozing from a gash on her head. I navigated the littered tile floor, gingerly sidestepping the broken pieces of an earthenware pot more than a quarter of an inch thick, the kind that a first year pottery student would create, and lay down across her bare feet. I didn’t know what to do.
Misty tried to tell me it wasn’t my fault, but she was wrong. My job was to look after my human and I had failed. I appreciated her support, I really did, but it didn’t make me feel any less responsible. I should have heard someone or something and warned her, but I fell asleep, heard nothing, saw nothing. Now Alyx was hurt.
Misty didn’t understand and I couldn’t explain it any better than that. Actually, I wasn’t so sure I understood the responsibility part myself. I only knew that’s how it was. The one thing I was sure of was that Alyx needed help.
I didn’t have to be an expert on human physiology to know she was hurt bad. I leaped on the table and touched her nose with mine, relieved that she was still breathing. Ethan would know what to do, except he didn’t live here anymore. The situation seemed hopeless. I lumbered away, head low, shoulders slumped, and then I remembered the conversation I overheard the night before.
My spirit restored, Misty and I padded to the foyer where we had a view of the street, the driveway, and all the activities in the neighborhood through the sidelights Alyx left bare for that purpose. There we waited still as doorstops positioned on both sides of the door, the imperceptible jerky movement of the tip of my tail the only sign of distress. For once, Misty had nothing to say, and in the silence, I let my mind wonder.
Knowing that I wasn’t about to repeat anything he said, I was Ethan’s confidante when he lived at home, and I knew it had been difficult for him to tell his mother that he wanted to move out. Ethan had been very close to his father before the divorce and his father’s neglect after the divorce broke his heart. His mother’s complete love had made it hurt a little less, but as he got older and learned to accept his relationship with his father for what it was, he confessed that sometimes he wished she didn’t love him quite as much, at times feeling smothered by the intensity of her devotion.
It had taken him several days to figure out how to say it so she wouldn’t be hurt and when he finally told her he wanted to move out, she agreed it was time for him to go and helped him put together the things he needed to setup house. Truth was, Alyx knew just about as soon as he did that he wanted to move out, and she had made it easy for him on purpose, but not because she was glad that he was leaving as Ethan might have thought.
Since then, their relationship had moved to a different level, and for the most part, Alyx was a friend and advisor. Apparently, Ethan had unwisely ignored her advice lately, and that’s what she said she wanted to discuss with him when she’d invited him for breakfast the night before.
“For a man to truly understand rejection, he must first be ignored by a cat.”
A Likely Suspect
Time isn’t something cats are generally aware of and I don’t know exactly how long we waited before Ethan finally showed up. Just as he took his keys out to unlock the door, Alyx’s best friend and business partner, Maggie Broeck, pulled in the driveway.
Ethan appeared surprised to see her, clenched the keys in a fist, and waited for her to get out of the car, wasting precious time. He didn’t look happy, not necessarily because he didn’t like her, more than likely because when she was around, she tended to side with Alyx, and he usually lost the argument. I know that because I’d comforted him many a time over the unfairness of it all.
I noticed that Maggie, elegantly dressed in beige slacks, a creamy white, silk blouse, and wearing her signature diamond studs, had recently added two more diamonds to her right ear.
Ethan greeted her with his usual grin, and a peck on the cheek, “Hey, Maggie, having breakfast with us?”
“Sure am. Your mother called me last night and asked me to join you. She said she wanted to clear things up, but didn’t say exactly what. She sounded a little mysterious about the whole thing.”
“Maybe it’s about that misunderstanding you two had the other day,” replied Ethan.
“Well, she’d better have a good reason for getting mad at me the way she did, and one breakfast isn’t going to make up for it,” Maggie said, not in a joking manner. “By the way, have you had a chance to speak to her about that matter we discussed?”
“I was going to do that today; I didn’t know you were going to be here,” he said as he inserted the key.
“You can still do that; I’ll just leave before you do. I have some work to do anyway.”
Although communicating with my kind was never a problem, humans used words, and I didn’t have that ability. I only knew two ways to convey my ideas––body movement and meowing, a language developed by the cat to communicate with his human. I tried to express the urgency of the situation by yowling, a sound coming from deep down my throat.
Misty understood immediately and picked up the chorus. Apparently, Ethan didn’t understand. He unlocked the door and squatted to pet me. Frustrated to no end, I tried body language, stiffened and took off, hoping Ethan would follow.
“Hey, what’s the matter with you? Aren’t you glad to see me?” Ethan asked with some unease reflected in his voice.
He called out a greeting to Alyx and when she didn’t answer, he dropped his keys on the bench by the door and instinctively rushed to the kitchen followed by Maggie. When he saw Alyx slumped over the table, he immediately checked for a heartbeat and yelled at Maggie, who was standing right next to him, to call 911. With shaking hands, he grabbed a kitchen towel and applied it to her head wound.
The ambulance arrived shortly after, followed by the Beachside police. I kept my eyes on Ethan who looked helpless while the paramedics took care of Alyx. Detective Smarts introduced himself to Ethan, surreptitiously taking note of his expensive clothes and his new eight hundred dollar watch, but he wasn’t so sly that I didn’t notice what he was doing.
“I understand you’ll want to follow the ambulance to the hospital, but we will need your fingerprints and a statement sometime today,” the detective said.
Ethan nodded absently as the paramedics placed Alyx on a stretcher.
“I’ll appreciate it if you’ll stop by the Osprey Avenue Station at your earliest convenience.”
In a hurry to follow the paramedics to the hospital, Ethan asked Maggie if she could stay and take care of things. The Detective introduced himself to Maggie. “Al Smarts,” he said, not looking at her but in Ethan’s direction.
Ethan searched his pockets for his keys, turned full circle, his eyes darting about until he spotted them where he had dropped them. Smarts openly observed his every move, ignoring Maggie, even though she was talking and gesturing excitedly.
“I’m Maggie Broeck and I just cannot believe what happened here. This is such a quiet neighborhood. Who could have done this to her?”
I sprinted to the front door, and Ethan, keys in hand, saw that his car was blocked and jogged to the ambulance before it peeled out. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Pooky, my other housemate, quietly disappear into the lush landscaping surrounding the renovated bungalow.
Too distraught to call anyone’s attention to Pooky’s escape or to speculate as to why Smarts had scrutinized Ethan so thoroughly; I pushed it to the back of my mind to think about later.