Cat by Any Other Name (9781101597729)

BOOK: Cat by Any Other Name (9781101597729)
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A Cat by Any Other Name

An Alice Nestleton Mystery

 

 

Lydia Adamson

INTERMIX BOOKS, NEW YORK

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have control over and does not have any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

A CAT BY ANY OTHER NAME

An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Signet Books edition / April 1992

InterMix eBook edition / November 2012

A Cat By Any Other Name
copyright © 1992 by Lydia Adamson.

Excerpt from
A Cat in the Wings
copyright © 1992 by Lydia Adamson.

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

ISBN: 978-1-101-59772-9

INTERMIX

InterMix Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

INTERMIX and the “IM” design are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Chapter 1

There were three Siamese kittens. Winken was on my head. Blinken was playing with my right thumb. And the third, Nod, was on the carpet in front of me, staring up at me with her profoundly sad eyes.

A second later they had all changed places, and I couldn't tell who was who.

The night was warm. The glass doors of the terrace were open and I could see out—over the East River and the lights of the Queensboro Bridge. Ava Fabrikant's Sutton Place apartment was magnificent; it nestled like a jewel in the ivy-covered building, twenty-three stories above the river.

We had eaten the orange duck, and now we were all waiting for the great moment. There was Ava, and her husband, Les. Barbara Roman, and her husband, Tim. Sylvia Graff, and her gentle alcoholic husband, Pauly. Renee Lupo and myself.

What was the great moment?

The serving of the peppermint tea.

Oh, not just any tea! Tea brewed from the first crop to come up in our community herb garden on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Fifteen tiny peppermint leaves.

Three months before, one of my cat-sitting clients had told me about four women, all cat lovers, who were going to create a herb garden on a tiny parcel of wretched, garbage-strewn land, just off Avenue B.

They were, she told me, going to plant basil and coriander and dill and thyme and chamomile and peppermint. And, above all, they were going to plant catnip and calamint.

And then, along with schoolchildren from the area, they were going to harvest and dry the herbs, package them, and then sell them to gourmet food stores—with all the proceeds going to the ASPCA.

It struck me as the most romantic and quixotic of adventures. A herb garden in the city?

But why not? I hadn't dug into the earth since I left my grandmother's dairy farm to go to the big city almost twenty-five years ago. And I needed a change in my life. I needed something different . . . nontheatrical . . . basic.

So I called them, and they welcomed me, and the last three months of planning and planting and fertilizing a small, desolate patch of urban earth had been glorious.

Barbara Roman sat down on the sofa beside me. Winken, Blinken, and Nod immediately switched their allegiance and overran her. Her laughter came out in peals.

She picked Blinken up with one hand and held the kitten close to her face.

“I wonder,” she said, “what Swampy would make of you.”

Swampy was her grizzled old tomcat. Then she kissed Blinken on the nose. That was too much, and off the kitten flew, the others following. Five seconds later they were lost to sight.

The sounds of gentle bickering over the brewing process wafted into the living room from Ava's immense kitchen. “Hell hath no fury like middle-aged herb gardeners,” Barbara nodded.

I laughed. I was beginning to pick up a faint odor of peppermint. I turned to Barbara to tell her, but she had already picked it up and was nodding happily. We were very much in sync.

Barbara was the first good friend I had made in twenty years. We spent hours on the phone together. She was interested in me: in my acting, in my cat-sitting, in my crime-solving, in the men who had shared my life. Barbara was literate and witty and good—but above all she had the gift of compassion. And I was not the only person who thought so. Everyone who knew this small brown-haired woman with a penchant for smocks loved her. And if they didn't, they listened to her because she made sense. Maybe she was, in the old-fashioned sense, wise.

She leaned over toward me. “Look at poor Renee.” I looked across the room where Sylvia Graff's husband, Pauly, was telling Renee some kind of disjointed story.

“She's making believe she's listening, but her mind is on the peppermint tea,” Barbara speculated.

A shout of triumph came from the kitchen, and Ava appeared holding a tray. On the tray were eight beautiful little Japanese cups.

“Drum roll, please!” Ava shouted at her husband, Les, who did his best by rattling a fork against a piece of furniture.

Walking gingerly, as if she were carrying a priceless treasure, Ava approached the French Provincial dining table and carefully put the tray down.

We all rushed to the table. Each of us picked up a cup and held it high.

“Wait!” Les called out. “What about sugar?” He was greeted with looks of such withering scorn that he seemed to scrunch down into the carpet.

“A toast is definitely in order,” Sylvia said.

“To the plant who sacrificed her fabulous leaves,” Renee offered.

We drank. There were only two fingers' worth of tea in each cup.

After the great moment was over we placed the cups back onto the tray. No one knew what to say.

“Well,” Ava finally said, “mine tasted like peppermint tea.”

We all burst out laughing. There is nothing so ludicrous as searching for a superlative when it just isn't appropriate.

After the tea we had a delicious lemon mousse and strong French roast coffee and brandy.

The hours flew by. No one made any move to leave. At around eleven thirty I found myself listening to Renee. Barbara stood next to me, sipping brandy. Behind her was Ava, coffee cup in hand.

“I read this fascinating article about trap gardening,” Renee said.

“What is ‘trap' gardening?” Ava asked, adding, “It sounds almost cruel.”

Barbara handed me her brandy glass to hold. “I'll be right back,” she said. “I want to get some air.”

“Well,” Renee continued, “imagine that you are growing potatoes. But each year that you've tried to grow them in the past, they've been decimated by potato beetles. What do you do if you're an organic gardener and refuse to use pesticides?”

“Pray?” asked Ava.

“No. You grow eggplant.”

“And forget the potatoes?” I asked, confused.

“No. In addition to the potatoes. You see, there is only one crop potato beetles like better than potatoes—and that is eggplant. So, the beetles will decimate the eggplant and leave the potatoes alone.” Renee's dark eyes flashed. She was a writer, and very intense. She seemed to see cosmic significance in the most mundane things.

“What is that noise?” Ava asked. There
was
a noise now—a growing sound of horns from the street below.

Les called out from the far side of the room. “There must be a backup on East River Drive. Take a look out, Ava.”

Ava handed me her coffee cup. I now had Barbara's brandy glass in one hand and Ava's coffee cup in the other. Ava walked out onto the terrace. I looked for a place to put the things down.

A horrible scream shattered the air around us.

It seemed to suck the air from the room.

It came from the terrace.

We ran out and saw Ava standing by the terrace ledge. Her hands were cupping her face. The scream lingered on, gurgling in her throat.

I stared down, out over the railing. The cars were backed up as far as the eye could see in either direction. Their headlights glowed like newly lit candles.

On the highway, far below, lay a small black object. It was a body.

We all looked around, furtively at first, then with increasing desperation.

Barbara Roman was not among us.

I looked at my trembling hand. The brandy glass was still there. I walked slowly to the terrace wall and leaned against the brick.

Barbara had handed me her drink, walked out to the terrace, and leaped to her death.

Chapter 2

Three days later was the funeral, if one could call it that. Barbara had left no written instructions, but she had told Tim once—long ago, he said—that she wanted to be cremated, so Tim arranged for cremation. He decided he would strew the ashes about the herb garden.

As agreed, we gathered in the garden at ten in the morning, all still in a state of shock. There were people there I didn't recognize. Barbara's friends? Relatives? I wasn't curious. What did it matter?

The morning was cloudy and warm. The plants seemed to be bending low in sympathy. Several neighborhood people stood just outside the makeshift fence and looked in—confused, a bit apprehensive, not knowing what was going on. I could see some of the children who had helped us with the planting and a few of the homeless who had drifted in from Tompkins Square Park.

No one spoke. We stood and looked at one another, then at the pattern of the garden, then up at the adjoining tenements, smudges against the troubled sky.

Tim had arrived early, and now he stood on the far side of the garden perimeter, near the catnip. He wore a gray suit, gray shirt, and a black tie. In the crook of his arm was an odd-looking box. Next to Tim stood Ava Fabrikant, who kept touching his arm in a pathetic gesture and then taking her hand away. The rest of us fanned out along the edges of the garden.

To one side of me Renee Lupo stood. Obviously out of agitation, she constantly shifted her weight from one foot to the other. On my left was a young man I didn't know. He stared resolutely at a point on a brick wall nearby. He had haunted blue eyes and a few days' growth of beard.

For some reason—I suppose just to keep from losing control—I began to talk to the young man about the history of the building that had once stood on the lot where we were now assembled. I spoke quite softly, informing him that it had started out as a synagogue, then become a church, then housed a dance company, then been taken over by a drug rehabilitation clinic, then a theater troupe. Just before it was razed because of a fire, it had been a very loud and seedy bar. I even told him about the time, in the building's theater phase, when I had auditioned for a part in a play called
Where Is Emma Now?
I didn't even know whether the man was listening to me. He kept his eyes on the house across the way and just nodded from time to time. Then I stopped the monologue as abruptly as I had begun it. Renee Lupo had grabbed my hand. We both began to weep.

The first wave of true grief over the death of my friend hit me at exactly that moment. I realized, quite simply, that I would never again see her or hear her voice over the telephone for as long as I lived, and that realization, three days after the event, slammed into my body like a battering ram. I was afraid—so afraid I would fall that I reached out with my free hand and grasped the young stranger next to me by the arm, so that I was holding on to both him and Renee.

Suddenly I was ashamed. Embarrassment had replaced fear. I felt like a tall Raggedy Ann who was coming unstuffed. Sylvia Graff's husband Pauly and Ava's husband Les rushed over to me, each of them taking me by an arm and leading me away. We walked and walked, going nowhere. They said not a word. I tried to speak but found it hard—my breath was coming in short, cutting little bursts.

My numbing panic subsided in time. Tentatively, Pauly and Les released their hold on me. I smiled to let them know I was going to be all right, and on my own I started back to take my place in the circle of mourners.

Standing there, momentarily recovered from my sudden bouts of grief and panic, and waiting for the ceremony to commence, I thought again for some reason of the play I had mentioned to the young man only a few moments before,
Where Is Emma Now?

It had been one of those voguish philosophical murder plays. The character Emma never appeared onstage, because she was serving a life term in prison for murdering her three-year-old daughter.

The play itself consisted of dramatic interviews and monologues with those who loved and hated Emma, orchestrated by a Pirandello-type narrator who addressed the audience directly when he wasn't interrogating the characters.

I had auditioned for the part of Anya, Emma's psychiatrist. It was a good part, and I was disappointed when I didn't get it.

But my thoughts that morning, as I stood in that sad herb garden, did not revolve around my failure to land the part of Anya. I was remembering, instead, the part of the narrator who, after each interview with one of Emma's friends or lovers or physicians, noted to the audience in flamboyant style that life always imitates theater, but theater has nothing to do with life.

It was all really just fluff then, just heady nonsense. But now, in the presence of my friend's ashes and mourners, it didn't seem nonsense at all.

I understood for the first time what the narrator in the play had been saying: that the theater reveals the logic of human events. As
Where Is Emma Now?
proceeds, we discover that Emma probably did not kill her daughter. And then, after the audience has been rocked by that bombshell, we learn that Emma may not have even had a daughter at all.

The logic of the theater is to strip away all the given truths—to show that facts are baubles.

I looked around the garden at the faces of the mourners.

My hands grew cold. It dawned on me that for the first time since the tragedy, I had gone beyond grief and entered a different reality.

I simply could not believe that what had happened had really happened. Oh, I believed that Barbara had fallen to her death. And I knew that even supposedly happy people kill themselves. And I knew that evil things happen to good people.

No, it was the logic of the script that was peculiar—from the herb garden planting to the tea party to the funeral. Something was very wrong.

Suddenly I felt ashamed at myself for all those strange speculations. Logic? Theater? Shame on me. I was there to bid good-bye to my dearest friend. And besides,
Where Is Emma Now?
had closed after eleven performances.

I shut my eyes and prayed to my own God that whatever part of Barbara still lived would be at peace.

Tim Roman stepped forward just then. He said in a booming voice: “I am glad you could all come today. Barbara would have wanted—” But suddenly his resolve crumbled, and he began to weep horribly. We didn't know what to do, so we just stood there and watched him act out his pain.

It didn't last long. Tim held up his hand, and that seemed to help him regain control. Composed, he started his speech again, this time more quietly.

“This is where she would have wanted her ashes . . . um . . . planted.” He stopped, laughing somewhat crazily. “I don't know . . . what does one do with ashes? Place them? Plant them? Dump . . .
Strew
them, I suppose.” For a minute he stared, lost, at the box in his hands. Tim sighed deeply. “Oh, Barbara loved—but I guess I don't have to tell you how much she loved this garden. It was always on her mind. And you were always in her thoughts. She loved all of you so much.”

Without further words, he opened the box and turned it over quickly. The powdery white substance fluttered out. There was so little of it. But we could see the ashes float on the air and disperse, almost as if someone had flicked a giant cigarette.

Tim snapped shut the lid on the box. All was quiet now. Even the persistent sounds of the city seemed to recede, like the last strains of the music at the end of a movie.

Some of the guests began to leave, making their way over to Tim to offer their condolences. I heard one woman whisper to a companion that she was surprised there had been no religious ceremony, that there should have been a minister—or
someone
—to say a few words. Or at least Tim should have said a prayer.

Renee suddenly wheeled in her place, away from the garden, and stared out at the street.

“So stupid . . . so inexplicable!” she said to me bitterly.

I watched her profile, her thin, dark face like a glove pulled tight.

“Do you understand what I am saying, Alice? She had everything to live for.
Everything
, period. She was loved. And she loved. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! No meaning. No sense at all. One moment she's here with us, listening, laughing, talking. And then she's gone. There's no reason, Alice. Where's the reason? Oh, God, sometimes I hate this world!”

I couldn't dispute what Renee had said. And I didn't know how to comfort her. So I said nothing.

Renee turned back toward the garden. “Ashes!” she snorted. “How appropriate: ashes,
nothing
, specks landing on some effete little plants in the most godforsaken part of the city.” She buried her face in her hands.

All I knew was that it was imperative I should be alone. I wanted to go back to my apartment and see my cats. That's all. I told Renee that I had to leave. Through the tears she nodded in assent. I walked briskly out of the garden and headed for Second Avenue, quickening my pace as if to match the speed of the flashbacks reeling through my head.

In my mind I was back in Ava's apartment, and Barbara had handed me her brandy glass because she was going to get some air, she said.

“Alice!”

At first I thought the sound of my name was just part of the reverie.

“Alice! Wait!”

But no, it wasn't. When I stopped and turned, I saw a figure running up the block toward me. It was Tim Roman.

He was approaching with frightening speed and purpose—at least it seemed that way. Running with abandon, desperation, as if catching up with me were the most important thing in his life, as if I had something of his that he had to retrieve at all costs.

He stopped five feet away from me, trying to catch his breath. The box was still in his hand.

Still breathing sharply, he asked: “Why are you leaving?”

“I need to rest for a while, Tim.”

“Did you at least see the ceremony?”

I didn't know what he meant. Hadn't I just overheard a complaint about the distinct lack of ceremony? Then I realized he must be referring to the scattering of the ashes.

“Yes, I was there, Tim. Didn't you see me? I was standing next to Renee.”

He regarded me strangely, as if he were puzzling out the meaning of the very simple words I'd just spoken.

Tim said something I couldn't hear. I moved closer. “What did you say, Tim?”

“I said, ‘I don't . . . know . . . what . . . to do.'” He had spoken very slowly and carefully, and never in my life had I heard any sadder words.

“Tim,” I began, then left it. “Poor Tim.”

I kissed him gently on the cheek, backed up a few steps, turned, and started across the avenue.

“Just a minute!” he cried out. “Alice, I have something to give you!”

“What do you have to give me?”

“I have something to give you,” he repeated, not answering my question.

I paused a minute before saying, “I have to go now, Tim. Call me—okay?”

The traffic light was with me at that moment. I took the opportunity to cross. When I reached the other side, I looked back. He was still standing there, holding that box.

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