Read Pet Noir Online

Authors: Pati Nagle

Tags: #mystery, #science fiction, #humor, #cat

Pet Noir (8 page)

BOOK: Pet Noir
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There was a gentlemen's-club-looking place up ahead. I thought the chief was heading for that, but he stopped a door early, at a pink and frilly joint with a sign that said “Tammy's Tea Shoppe” in curly letters.

“You've got to be kidding,” I muttered.

“Shh!”

The chief frowned down at me, then without warning picked me up. I squawked. He held me close to his face and stroked my head while he whispered in my ear.

“No talking, Leon. If you blow your cover you won't be any use to us. I'll sell your contract to a rat-catching firm. It'll take a lot longer to work it off that way.”

I shut up. He said it in a pleasant voice, but I knew a genuine threat when I heard it.

Not to mention I didn't think I was cut out for rat-catching. I'd developed a distinct dislike for the beasts.

Still holding me, he walked into the pink place. It didn't have tables like a regular restaurant. Instead it had little groupings of three or four comfy chairs around a coffee table, or maybe a couple of chairs and a couch. Lots of crocheted crap and doilies and lacy stuff everywhere.

The place was deserted except for two middle-aged ladies wearing actual dresses, sitting at one of the coffee tables with old-fashioned china teacups and saucers on their knees. On the table between them was a plate of little sandwiches and cookies and cakes.

My stomach growled. Not my favorite, but it would do in a pinch, and maybe there would be tuna in one of those sandwiches.

One of the ladies looked up. “Chief Wright! How nice of you to visit! Will you excuse me a moment, Emma dear?”

She got up and sailed over to us, her massive bosom leading the way, scarlet-painted smile beaming beneath a bouffant hairdo that was an improbable shade of red. She got a look at me and the smile widened.

“What an adorable kitten! Did you just get it?”

“Uh, yeah,” said the chief. “His name's Leon.”

“Hello, Leon!” She tickled my chin with her long, pink-polished nails. “Puddy, puddy!”

I bristled, but kept my mouth shut and my claws to myself. Well, except for the ones I was using to hang onto the chief's clingsuit. I couldn't help it if those poked him a little.

“Ow—ah, ahem,” he said. “I think he's a little lonely, being away from his family for the first time. I know you've got a cat, Mrs. Thompson, so I thought maybe—”

“Oh, yes!” she said. “Bring him on over here! Cuddles,” she sang in a cutesy voice as she led us toward the cash register, “you have a vi-i-i-s-itor!”

Next to the register was a stand about a meter high, with long gold fringe around the edges and a sign that said “Cuddles” in curly script dangling from a little gold chain. On it was a cat bed done up in red velvet cushions, on top of which lay a large, orange tabby, gently snoring.

Before I knew it the chief put me down on the stand. “Say hi to Cuddles, Leon.”

I froze. His name notwithstanding, this cat looked like he could eat me for breakfast.

He had stopped snoring when my feet hit the stand. Now he opened his huge green eyes, stared at me for a couple of seconds, then hissed, showing acres of teeth. A smell of fish, with a hint of garlic, washed over me.

“Cuddles!” said Mrs. Thompson. “That's no way to treat a guest!”

My fur was standing on end. My back had arched without my knowing it, my tail had tripled in diameter, and I was standing on my toes, ready to run for it.

“Easy, Leon,” said the chief. He gave me an awkward pat on the head. I tensed.

“Who the hell are you?” demanded Cuddles in a low growl.

“Nobody!” I answered in cat-talk, my voice coming out in a squeak. “Didn't mean to bother you! This human just put me here.”

The tabby's eyes narrowed and he glanced up at the chief. “You're with him?”

“Uh, sort of.”

“What's he doing in the tea shoppe? Usually he goes in the smoking room.”

“I think he wanted me to meet you, Mr. Cuddles, sir.”

He grimaced and rolled up onto his stomach. “The name's Butch, kid.”

“Oh, Butch. Sorry.”

He looked me up and down. “Geez, look at you. You're a mess. Doesn't your mother groom you?”

That caught me off guard. My voice shook a little as I answered.

“They took me away from my mother. I haven't seen her since yesterday.”

“Aw, heck. C'mere kid.”

Butch stood up, which made him look even huger. A casual observer might think he was fat, but there were powerful muscles underneath all that orange fur. He came closer to me and I flinched.

“Easy. Let me fix you up a little.”

He licked the rumpled fur behind my right ear. It felt oddly comforting, even though he was a stranger. I found myself lying down, and before I knew it Butch put one big paw on my shoulder to hold me down while he went to town grooming the back of my neck.

“There!” cooed Tammy. “That's nice!”

I shut my eyes, not wanting to look at the chief while I was in this humiliating position. I became aware that the tip of my tongue was protruding between my fangs, and hastily pulled it in.

“I think they'll be all right now,” said Tammy. “Would you like a cup of tea, Chief Wright?”

“Oh, ah—well. Sure. Thanks.”

From his voice I got the impression he'd rather chew glass than sit on a frilly chair drinking tea. Probably he wanted to keep an eye on me. I hoped he would hate every minute.

“There you go, kid,” said Butch. “You're presentable at least.”

He let go and I got up, giving my forepaw a lick. “Thanks, Butch.”

“Don't mention it. Takes a little practice, learning to get all the hard-to-reach spots. You're a little young to leave home, aren'tcha?”

I hadn't thought about it before. I sat there blinking stupidly.

“Well, never mind. You want me to show you the ropes?”

“Ropes?”

“Figure of speech. Show you around the station, I mean. You just got here, right?”

“Y-yesterday.”

“C'mon, then.”

He jumped off the back of the stand, his huge bulk landing silently on the carpeted floor. I glanced toward the humans and saw Tammy happily chattering away, the chief nodding every now and then and looking glazed.

I slipped down after Butch, trying to be as silent as he'd been. He jerked his head for me to follow and slunk behind a couch, heading deeper into the tea shoppe.

He moved from couch to chair to a table so low he had to crouch to get under it, all keeping out of sight of Tammy and company. I padded after him, sticking close.

He paused behind a wing chair covered in floral chintz, the last piece of furniture in the room. A meter-wide gap stood between us and a door which, from the smell of it, seemed to lead to the kitchen.

Butch gave me a warning glance and then stared intently at the humans at the front of the shoppe. I couldn't tell what he was watching for, but after a minute he muttered “Go!” and launched himself across the gap.

I dashed after him, my heart hammering. I expected a burst of yelling from the chief, but Butch's plan seemed to have worked. We were clear.

It was indeed a kitchen, full of nice buttery smells. No humans in there at the moment. I glanced hopefully at the counters, but it looked like whoever worked there had done too good a job of cleaning up.

Butch stopped behind a counter and shook himself. “OK, kid. Come on and have a look at the smoking room. It's a better hangout than the tea shoppe.”

“Does the owner mind your coming in?” I asked, following him toward a door at the far end of the kitchen.

Butch laughed. “You could say she does. She'd rather have me sitting on that stupid stand all day.” He looked over his shoulder at me. “Tammy owns both joints.”

“Oh.”

“Here we are,” he said, his voice ringing with satisfaction as he paused at another doorway. “Steadly's Smoking Room.”

We went into a room that was dark and cozy. A holographic fire flickered in a fireplace surrounded by a half-circle of overstuffed chairs covered in burgundy leather. One of them was occupied by a guy in a dark, business-style clingsuit, reading the paper while he munched on half a roast beef sandwich.

A plate holding the other half and a pile of French fries sat on a small table next to him. My mouth started watering.

Butch gave me a wink and led the way, following a random path as if exploring the furniture, but working his way steadily over to that sandwich. I followed, practicing my stealthy slink.

Butch had a way of rolling his shoulders as he walked that showed off the power in his limbs while conveying a state of watchful ease. I tried to imitate it, not very successfully.

He came to a stop in front of the guy's chair and let out one small mew. The human lowered his paper.

“Oh, Cuddles. Shouldn't you be next door?”

Butch mewed again, giving him the big, green eyes. I put on my cute kitten face, ears perked and eyes wide, and added my mew to Butch's.

“Well, what have we here?” The guy shoved his newspaper between the seat and the arm of his chair and leaned forward to pet me. “Hiya, little guy. You're new here, aren't you?”

I mewed again. He scratched behind my ears and did a reasonably good job, so I purred.

“Heh, heh. Cute. OK, here you go.”

He pulled a scrap of meat out of his sandwich and dangled it over my head. I grabbed at it, and he let it drop to the floor. I pounced and commenced gobbling while Butch upped the urgency of his mewing.

“Yeah, here's some for you, too, Cuddles.”

Butch gulped down his meat while I was still chewing mine. He returned to the cute cat position and mewed for more.

“Nah, that's all you get. Now scram.”

The guy pulled his paper out of the chair, rattling it a little as a warning. Butch leaped away.

I hastily gulped the rest of my meat and followed him. Had to stop myself from calling a thank-you over my shoulder.

“He was nice,” I said as we strolled toward the front of the smoking room.

“Albert. Comes in for lunch most days. He's always good for a bite, but only one.” Butch paused to sniff under a leather couch near the door, then looked at me. “So, what would you like to see?”

“Uh—well, actually, I didn't get breakfast. Is there any place else we might get some food?”

Butch gave me a quizzical look, then chuckled. “Kid, this is the rotunda. You name it, we can find it.”

My mouth started watering. “Fish?”

“Fish, OK. You got your fish and chips at Molly's, fancy stuff at the Steakmeister, crawfish at Pulsar but that's up in the warehouse district, junk shrimp at Zip Fix?”

“I kind of like their popcorn shrimp,” I put in.

“If you like shrimp you should try Ling-Ling's Lightspeed. Or the Imperial Gardens—Ling-Ling runs both places. But it's easier to get a handout at the kiosk.”

“Let's try that then,” I said, my stomach growling.

“Right this way.”

He strolled out into the rotunda. For a moment I was scared to follow him. The chief and Devin were my only reliable food source, and I had never been out on my own before.

I had to work up the nerve to walk away from the chief, but Butch's hulking presence was a comfort. I took a deep breath and stepped out into the world.

4. The Stratoma Strategy

I hadn't really had a chance to observe the rotunda at my leisure before. I'd always been hurrying after a human, except for the one trip in the puke box. Now, strolling along with Butch, I could take in the smells, the color and constant motion. The rotunda is always busy. It's where the humans go to eat and play, to see and be seen. Lots of courting activity. Lots of activity, period.

Underneath its starview dome, the rotunda is made up of concentric rings of commercial property between wide walkways landscaped with trees and benches and stuff. There are some tables here and there for people to sit and eat stuff they get at the kiosks, but the main purpose of these areas is to keep the traffic moving.

Butch led me away from the outermost ring, where all the fancy restaurants with starview windows are, inward a couple of rings. The corridors that crossed the rings were smaller and didn't have any of the trees or furniture, though they were lined with kiosks, most of which didn't sell food. They sold other stuff instead—clothes and magazines and music and lots of things that were useless but looked pretty. I understood human commerce pretty well, though why they shelled out their credit for the useless-but-pretty stuff I still hadn't figured out. There was a lot of it for sale in the rotunda, though.

Butch turned onto the third walkway in, and I followed. I could smell food ahead: the greasy spicy fried-corn smell of tacos, a smell of cooked green stuff, bread, melted cheese, mustard. The taco and cheese smells made my mouth water.

I stuck close to Butch. He passed by a Mex-Sector kiosk and made a beeline for a little place with four tiny tables crammed in next to a black and red counter with high stools like at the bar in Molly's, only cleaner. The red neon sign above it said “Ling-Ling's Lightspeed Asian.”

“Follow my lead,” Butch said.

He turned off course and started chasing something. At first I thought he really had a mouse, so I pounced too. It was an imaginary mouse, though. Butch jumped and scuttled with a speed you wouldn't expect, given the size of him. All the time he was working his way toward Ling-Ling's.

I played dumb kitten, chasing after Butch like I was trying to get in on his catch but didn't get the game. It got me up to the end of the counter right alongside him just as a girl in tangerine body tights and a black miniskirt came out from behind it carrying a tray from which heavenly smells were rising. She had short black hair and an Asian cast to her features, with uptilted eyes that narrowed when she smiled at Butch.

“Hi, Cuddles! Just a sec.”

BOOK: Pet Noir
3.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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