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Authors: Shirley Rousseau Murphy

Cat Laughing Last

BOOK: Cat Laughing Last
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SHIRLEY ROUSSEAU MURPHY
CAT LAUGHING LAST

A JOE GREY MYSTERY

To the memory of Joe Cat,
a debonair fellow of wry dignity
whose creative manipulations
shaped his world pretty much as he chose.

I would like to thank soprano Barbara Brooks for escorting me through Carmel's Golden Bough Playhouse. While I have not drawn a mirror likeness, I hope to have captured a small portion of the magic present between performances in the dim and empty theater.

No other animal has managed to get itself tangled up in as much legend, myth, symbolism, religion, history, and human affairs as the cat. From the time it first appeared upon the scene some four thousand years ago, it has played its part in almost every age…. Black magic, white magic, good luck and bad, a hundred superstitions covering every aspect of human life and condition, are ascribed to the cat…. Here is a compendium to attract mere mortals…there is a magic about it overall, and what we would dearly love to be is magicians with supernatural powers. The cat would seem to have retained some of these occult faculties. Let us therefore be friends to them and friends to their friends.

—P
AUL
G
ALLICO
,
Honorable Cat

Contents

1
The man lay facedown, bleeding into the braided rug of…

2
“Like a colony of pack rats,” Joe Grey said. “Such…

3
The light in Susan Brittain's garage was dim. Standing in…

4
When the ambulance screamed again through the village, Mavity Flowers…

5
On the patio of the Swiss House, only one table…

6
The kitchen counter was cold, the tile icy beneath Joe…

7
Clyde pulled the snack tray from the refrigerator and set…

8
Clyde woke in the dark predawn when he felt Joe…

9
In the velvet evening, Mexican music beat brassy and sweet,…

10
Trotting single file along a twisted oak branch, the three…

11
In the black attic Dulcie raced among hulking furniture, clawing…

12
Whether you're a cop with a search warrant or the…

13
The tall Tudor mansion that housed Molena Point Little Theater…

14
Racing up and down the empty beach in the early…

15
Driving up Ocean, with the dalmatian in the seat beside…

16
Spotlights illuminated center stage. The house lights were dark, the…

17
The two cats watched Fern's Toyota pull up in front…

18
Rehearsal was over. Everyone but Cora Lee had left the…

19
Fog softened the lines of the long, two-story building, the…

20
The ambulance had gone, taking Cora Lee to the hospital…

21
“This isn't going to work,” Joe said, looking up at…

22
The street was empty except for two parked cars half…

23
The first thing the three cats saw as they entered…

24
As the courthouse clock struck 4:30, its chimes ringing sharply…

25
Beyond Wilma's windows, the garden was pale with fog, the…

26
Where a steep roof rose from a flat one, the…

27
The setting moon painted a line of brilliant light along…

28
Harper raked in the largest pot of the night, stacking…

29
The ladies of the Senior Survival club met early Saturday…

30
The front page of the Molena Point Gazette was deeply…

31
It was opening night of Thorns of Gold. Among the…

T
he man
lay facedown, bleeding into the braided rug of Susan Brittain's breakfast room, the fallen keyboard of Susan's computer dangling from the edge of her desk and dripping blood onto his face. The sliding glass doors of the large, bright room stood open, admitting a damp, chill breeze. The white shutter doors of the floor-to-ceiling cupboards had been flung back, the contents of the shelves thrown to the floor, a jumble of office supplies, boxes of costume jewelry, and ceramic dishes. Susan's prized houseplants were crushed beneath broken ceramic planters and heaps of black potting soil; every surface was dusted with soil and with clinging black powder where a plastic bottle of copier toner had burst open, the inky haze charring a blood-splattered doll and crusting the lenses of Susan's good reflex camera.

One shoe print was incised in the toner powder but had been partially smeared away. The computer had been turned on, the program on the screen a list of eBay auction items showing photographs of each offering with its price. The time was 6:30 A.M. Susan had
been gone from the house for an hour. As the victim lay committing his blood to her hand-braided rug, across the village three seemingly unrelated events were taking place, three small dramas that might, at a future date, help construct a scenario of interest to Molena Point police—and to one gray tomcat and his tabby lady.

At the south side of the village, in the old mansion that housed Molena Point Little Theater, a young tortoiseshell cat prowled alone among the sets, her bright, inquisitive mind filled with wonderful questions. She was not hunting mice or snatching spiders from the cobwebs that hung in the far, high corners of the raftered ceiling. Her curiosity centered on the theater itself. She had watched the sets being built and painted, marveling at the green hills that looked so very like the real Molena Point hills over which she ranged each day. When she backed away from the sets, as the artist often did, the rolling slopes seemed nearly as huge and throbbing with light, the land running on forever along the edge of the Pacific. Only these hills didn't smell like green grass and earth, they smelled like paint. And no houses nestled among them, just scattered oaks, and wandering herds of longhorn cattle and deer and elk, from a time long past.

“Did Molena Point truly look like this?” she whispered to the empty theater. “All wild and without people? And such big animals everywhere? Were there no little cats then? And no rabbits or gophers to hunt?”

Every wonder that the kit had encountered in her short life had demanded vociferous response. She had to talk about each new event, if only to herself. She stood watching the hills, filled with questions, and she
looked above her, too, at the ropes and props of the theater, at the catwalk where she liked to prowl, at the electrical buttons and cords that operated the various curtains, and at the overhead pulleys and lights, all complicated and wonderful. Muttering among ragged purrs, she sat admiring the set of the Spanish hacienda, with its deep windows and ornamental grills, and its broad patio with masses of roses blooming. The long, painted tables seemed very real standing about the patio with their white cloths and silver and crystal and vases of flowers, waiting for the wedding party—for a bride and groom two hundred years dead. And the sadness of the love triangle sent a shiver through the kit, as if Marcos Romeros had just now been shot, this early dawn, as if at this moment he lay dying and betrayed.

The kit relished the stories that humans told—but especially she loved the ancient Celtic folklore that spoke of her own history. She had never seen any kind of play being made, she had never seen any story brought alive, onstage. This new kind of storytelling filled her with wonder almost greater than her small, tortoiseshell body could contain.

 

While the tattercoat kit dreamed alone in the empty theater, and the morning sky over Molena Point brightened to fog-streaked silver, the man who lay bleeding in Susan Brittain's breakfast room stirred. His fingers twitched, his hand moved. His eyes opened, his expression puzzled and then afraid.

And across the village in a handsome stone cottage, a phone rang. One ring, two. On the third bell the system switched to an answering tape, recording a long
message from a New York literary agent. Ten minutes later the instrument rang again, and an equally terse and irritated communication was committed to the machine from a prestigious New York editor. No one emerged from the bedroom to check the messages, certainly not the handsome, silver-haired author, a man one would expect to stroll out garbed in an expensive silk dressing gown and hand-sewn slippers. But it was, after all, only 6:50, California time. A writer who worked into the small hours had no desire to rise with the sun.

Several blocks away, in the crowded front yard of the Roy McLeary residence, as villagers gathered for the McLeary yard sale, an altercation was about to erupt over a small and unprepossessing wooden box that lay half hidden among cast-off household accessories and scarred furniture. A clash of emotions that would amuse and surprise the dozens of early bargain hunters, and would sharply alert the two cats who lay draped over the branch of a huge oak at the edge of the yard, greatly entertained by the intense atmosphere of the early gathering.

Joe Grey and Dulcie, having come from a predawn hunt up on the open hills, had arrived before daylight prepared to enjoy the bargaining. Though most of Molena Point's yard sales started officially at 8:00 A.M., by 6:30 or 7:00 they were well under way, every shopper eager for the best buys.

Among the dark, prickly leaves, Joe's sleek silver gray coat blended so well that he was hardly visible. But one white-booted paw hung over the branch, and the white strip down his face and his white chest might
be glimpsed among the dense foliage by an observant visitor. His yellow eyes gleamed, too, watching, highly intrigued by the human passion to possess another person's broken cast-offs. Beside him, Dulcie's green eyes were slitted with amusement. The tip of her dark tail twitched, and her dark brown stripes blended with the oak's shadows. Neither cat anticipated the trouble that was about to explode below them; neither was prepared, this morning, for the innocent gathering to turn violent.

And while the three events were yet to merge into an interesting scenario, six blocks to the west, out on the wide, sandy shore where the breakers rolled steadily like an endless heartbeat, Susan Brittain and her big brown poodle turned to head home, following their own double trail of footprints back toward the village. Susan's short, white hair was covered by a baseball cap, the collar of her faded jacket turned up against the sea wind. On Saturdays she walked Lamb very early so she could get to the yard sales, and could beat the other first arrivals who would snatch up all the best items. This morning she had left the house at 5:30, heading downhill from her apartment toward the heart of Molena Point, the village rooftops and oak trees massed below her, like black cutouts against the silver gleam of the sea. She had passed only a few cottages with their lights on, and then the shop windows softly illuminated—little lighted stages showing off bright jewelry and imported sweaters and fine china. Susan didn't need to urge Lamb along; knowing the Saturday routine, he leaned his strong ninety pounds on the leash as he did at no other time, looking back at her
urging her to hurry. Heaven knew she moved as fast as she could, considering her seventy years; but not fast enough to suit Lamb.

There was nothing lamblike about the big dog. A standard poodle was not a cuddly playtoy. Her daughter had called him Lamb when he was six weeks old, a small bundle of fluff then, and the name had stuck. Now, Lamb's long aristocratic head and his muscular body beneath his short-clipped, tightly curled chocolate coat showed clearly his power and dignity. Susan felt bad, sometimes, that he had never been taught the formal rituals of retrieving, of gathering in game birds, working with a human hunter on California's lakes and rivers, that he had never been allowed to develop the instinctive art that ran so powerfully in his blood. He was a companion dog, forced to trade his wild yearnings for home and fireside.

Around them as they headed home, the village was waking, cottage lights popping on behind curtained windows, the smell of freshly brewed coffee warming the damp sea air. She never tired of the village's diverse architecture, the small houses and shops an amazing and congenial mix of Bavarian, Swiss, Mexican adobe, California contemporary, Mediterranean, Victorian, all softened by the richly flowering gardens for which Molena Point was known, and by the dark and sprawling oaks and cypress trees that stood guard over the crowded rooftops. Somewhere ahead, a dog barked counterpoint to the sea's steady thunder. She'd had a lovely, quiet ramble with Lamb along the empty shore, looking away where sea and sky stretched forever, and she felt at peace. She had no clue that when she arrived home, her life would be precipitously altered.

Hurrying up Ocean between the shops, she saw only a few other dog walkers, saw none of her dog-owning friends; nor did she encounter the quiet New Yorker, Lenny Wells, and his sad-faced dalmatian. The young man was new to Molena Point; she had stopped with him for coffee several times, sitting at a sidewalk table, their two dogs lying quietly by their feet. She had suggested several congenial groups that Lenny might join, to get acquainted. He seemed so shy and uncertain; that was little enough that she could do to help him get settled. He was years her junior, quiet and respectful, very gentle with the young dog.

By the time Susan and Lamb reached home they had done two miles, a distance that Lamb considered tri-fling, little more than a warm-up. They were back at the house at 6:40, the sky cream and silver above them over the Molena Point hills. Starting in through the side door of the garage, Lamb growled and lunged through ahead of her, his ears back, his teeth gleaming as fierce as the fangs of an attacking wolf.

Alarmed, she pulled him back forcefully, shut the door, and moved away, speaking softly to Lamb. Someone was there, or had been—the big dog was not given to flights of fancy. Snatching up a sturdy, five-gallon plastic pot that had come from the nursery, she turned it over beneath the garage window and stood on it to peer in.

She no longer kept her car parked inside; it had sat out on the drive since she'd converted the double garage into a neat and efficient workroom for the storage and shipping of yard sale purchases. Looking in, she caught her breath.

The three big work tables had been overturned, and
one of the legs broken. Shelves were ripped from the wall, cupboard doors torn off—and all the carefully cataloged treasures that she and her friends had purchased at countless yard and estate sales lay broken and scattered across the concrete.

Stepping down from the makeshift stool, feeling more angry than afraid, she retrieved the short-handled shovel from where she'd leaned it against the wall last evening when she'd finished planting some lavender bushes in the side yard. Holding the shovel like a battering ram, and speaking quietly to the growling poodle, she flung open the garage door.

BOOK: Cat Laughing Last
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