Authors: Jill Nojack
I weave between the feet of the oldsters who've come to pay their "respects" to Eunice. It seems they're only respectful when Cassie is in earshot. When she isn't, it sounds more like this:
"I don't believe she died a natural death. There are at least ten people in this room alone who would have been justified in killing her..."
"Of course, it's not like
would have cared if we were here or not, but Cassie is a sweet girl..."
"I, for one, am glad the old witch is dead..."
That last one seems to be the consensus. No one but Cassie is going to miss Eunice.
I keep an eye on Natalie, who's been known to discover items from local homes have fallen into her handbag. According to the intel I collected for Eunice, she's had treatment for kleptomania in the past to avoid legal consequences. It wasn't effective. I don't care that she'd steal from Eunice, but the house and everything in it belong to Cassie now. With the exception of Gilly, I'm not sure Cassie should be associating with any of Eunice's old cohorts. Cat has had to gather way too much information about most of them over the years, and frankly, when you look that close at anyone, they're bound to come off at least a little sketchy.
I wend my way to where Cassie is sitting in a chair across from one of the choir members, listening to an old story about Eunice that makes her sound almost human. I scramble onto the expensively upholstered arm, careful not to leave claw marks. Once there, I insinuate myself into Cassie's lap. Her fingers scritch along my spine, then she chucks me under the chin gently to raise my face to hers so that her red-rimmed eyes meet mine.
"Hello, Tom. Are you staying out of trouble?"
Gillian, who's nursing her tea in the chair opposite, asks, almost nonchalantly, although I know her well enough to tell she's bursting with curiosity, "You've renamed him Tom? What inspired that name?"
"I found it written on the inside of his collar. He likes it, so he got a new name." I jump to Gilly's lap and rub my head lovingly against her, then lift my paws to stand with them on her chest, looking up into the green eyes that are looking into mine.
Gilly holds my gaze for a long moment. I can almost see the gears turning. Then, she shakes herself free of whatever thoughts had her frozen and says, "Interesting. Well, Tom is a good name. I was once close with someone named Tom. Although he didn't purr quite so prettily."
Gillian pets me absently as her eyes move up to look behind Cassie. She leans in and says, sotto voce, "Don't look now, but that wanker Kevin is making his way over here."
"Is he? He stopped by earlier this week. He was nice until Tom decided to make a meal of his ankle."
"Well, he would be, love, you're a very attractive girl. Just be wary of him is what I'm saying. Your little Tom seems to have good sense." Gillian leans back and speaks again at normal volume as she turns to the intruder, "Oh, hello, Kevin. Is your father with you?"
"No, no, he's not. He asked me to make his apologies. He had urgent business to see to after the service and will be unable to attend the wake."
Urgent business? More like drowning puppies or evicting the poor from their tenements. Maybe just some gloating and hand-rubbing as he anticipates the nefarious way he'll get his hands on Cassie's property. Having either one of them in the private living area of the house makes me want to spit and hiss, but Gillian soothes my hackles down with a stroke and sets me on the floor, where I sit sentinel. I'm not blinking until he's gone.
Kevin turns to Cassie, "By the way, I know it's still early days, but have you made any firmer plans about whether or not you're staying? I do hope you will."
"Nah, I'm still thinking things over. I always enjoyed working in the shop when I was a kid, but I'm not sure I want to do it as an adult. I just got a degree in Arts Administration, and I'm looking for an opportunity to use it."
"I didn't know that—I'm sure you know our gallery here in town?"
"Absolutely! The Giles Gallery of the Arts was my favorite place when I stayed with Granny Eunice. Mr. Simmons always took time with me to explain about the exhibits and how the art world works. He's the one who inspired me."
"It isn't well-known, but poor Simmons fell on hard times a while back, and my father was good enough to help him through it so that he didn't lose the gallery. Dad and I now own an 80% share. If you're interested in a position there, well—Simmons is getting long in the tooth and would be happy to have help."
"Really? He seemed to still be so full of enthusiasm the last time I visited."
"Oh yes, tired of the working world, as I understand it. Although he wouldn't say that to a potential customer, I'm sure."
Kevin knows much more about those "hard times" than he'd let Cassie in on. He created them for the purpose of him getting his hands on the gallery. Eunice had me do the dirty work in exchange for Kevin making sure his local fuzz buddies look the other way when questionable deliveries come to the shop.
It took me a long time to find something on Simmons. The only thing he's interested in is art, which doesn't normally lead to obvious depravity. Still, you'd be surprised what an enterprising cat can catch a glimpse of in a locked, humidity and temperature controlled room in the basement of an art gallery if he's a stealthy stalker. It turns out Simmons was willing to pay a high price to retrieve a painting that shouldn't have existed, but despite that, magically disappeared from his vault. To get it back, he needed a loan. A hush-hush one which Robert, at Kevin's insistence, was more than happy to make with the lion's share of the gallery as collateral.
When Simmons was eventually unable to repay the loan's steep interest, Robert became the majority partner in the business. I guess Kevin is already anticipating his father's death when he says he owns it.
"If he's really thinking about retiring, I can't think of anything I'd like more than the chance to learn from someone as knowledgeable as Dash Simmons. I'd be thrilled to do it!"
"Of course, something like that wouldn't leave time to run a shop. Or much time for the upkeep on a big, old Vicky like this one. You'd want to sell it and move to one of the modern homes a little farther from town."
If Cassie moves and takes me with her, I'll be Cat permanently. Nothing can shift me when I'm outside this house. I start to move, but Cassie reaches down to grab me and pulls me into her lap. Maybe she knows I'll be heading for the bastard's leg again. She keeps a firm grip.
Gillian interrupts. She's got a tone of command now that she didn't have when she was young. "Kevin, Cassie's old enough to know her own mind. I'm sure she can sort out her work and living arrangements just fine without any help from you or your father."
"I'm only trying to be supportive, Gillian."
"Of course you are," she replies. Only a trace of sarcasm betrays her.
Natalie and her gang drift closer during the exchange. If they were cats, their ears would have pricked up and swiveled in Kevin's direction to home in on every word coming out of his mouth. From the corner of my eye, I see Natalie's face briefly register disappointment as Kevin heads toward the hall to the kitchenette where the food is laid out. Maybe she wanted to see him get into it with Gillian as much as I did. But Gillian has far too much class to ruin a funeral.
I don't. I'd shut his mouth quick if I could.
As soon as Cassie forgets me and her grip loosens, I slip off her lap and wend my way carefully around the edge of the room, ducking under furniture to avoid the witches tramping around with no concern for the furry familiar at their feet. Kevin is still standing near the food table, in conversation with one of the other witches who was part of the black moon events. Their talk is a low murmur. I don't pick any of it up over the subdued hubbub in the room. Kevin moves off, and I keep him in sight. He's heading for the hall. Could be he needs the bathroom. It could also be he's up to no good.
I track him from a safe distance, waiting a minute before I follow him around the corner, but I find I'm not as stealthy as I think I am. I run right up on his shiny black dress shoes then rise swiftly into the air when he grasps me roughly by the skin at the back of my neck. Cats. Born with handles. Still, it's better than being lifted by the throat.
I dangle half a foot away from his mean, stupid face as he laughs.
"Well, look at that. I've got a tail." He smirks. It reminds me of Eunice. "I'm sure you'll excuse the pun? Now, cat, what do you think I should do with you?"
I hiss, spit, and swish my paws helplessly through the air, my head pulled back at a useless angle from the pressure at the back of my neck. I flail with the white thorns of my claws out, helpless and exposed, and feeling very small. What kind of man feels threatened by a fluffy kitten?
"Kevin? What are you doing?" Cassie hurries to us, although for a moment there, I'd hoped it was Eunice back from the grave so the bastard would get what he deserves. "Give him to me, now!" she demands.
Kevin shoves me toward her, making an excuse, but she won't have it. "You need to leave. This is a funeral. This is my Granny's funeral, and you're hurting a helpless kitten. You're not welcome here today." She pulls me close to cuddle me, tears dropping steadily into my fur, and I watch him go with a feeling of relief.
He shouldn't be here. He should never be here.
Cassie dusts the shelves and rearranges an item here, an item there.
"Well, Tom, I'm leaning toward opening the shop today. I don't think I can go through one more box of old photos, and I can't even think about starting in Granny's room with all her personal things yet."
Even though I want her to find the carefully prepared words I've left for her on Eunice's vanity, I almost hope she's never ready to go through Granny's possessions. A nice girl like Cassie won't even know the names of many of the "personal things" she'll find there. While it's about time Cassie stops thinking of Eunice as a pillar of society, I don't think coming across the adult toys, surveillance equipment, restraints, and other unsavory stuff is the ideal way for it to happen. I'm angry at Eunice for a lot of reasons, but right now, I'm especially angry at her for dying without wiping away the evidence of her hidden life so that innocent Cassie has to be the one who discovers it.
Cassie opens the till of the old-fashioned cash register and lays out the bills in piles. "There are enough ones and coins here to be able to handle a day's worth of making change. I'm going to take that as a good omen. I guess I should do this thing." She picks me up and plops me in the basket on the counter that has been reserved for "Cat" for over forty years and then walks to the door to turn the lock and flip the sign from "Closed" to "Open.”
As she walks back to the counter, she says, "So, are you ready for the onslaught? I'm sure the customers will come crowding in now, right?" Before she finishes her sentence, the door opens behind her, and the shop bell rings. She turns to greet her customer, but I can't see her expression when she identifies him.
If I were her, I'd add, “And how can we make you turn around and go away?” And then I'd give him a thump on the head for emphasis. Why is he here, lurking around her after she caught him being his awful self in public?
"I'm purchasing, not visiting. My housekeeper swears by Eunice's headache powder, so I like to keep a supply of it available. The poor woman suffers terribly from migraines.” When she doesn't respond, he continues, “And I'm also here to give you my heartfelt apology. Your kitten and I don't get along, but an animal can't help acting like an animal. I can. Will you forgive me?”
She shrugs. "Granny made a good headache powder, that's for sure. If your housekeeper needs it, I wouldn't keep her from getting it.”
"Thank you. You have to do what you can to help the people who help you. It's just common decency, isn't it?" Kevin smoothes the lonely strands of hair across the top of his head and gives her an oily smile. "Let's see, valerian, and I'll also need a packet of mayapple. For the garden pests, obviously. Natural remedies are best, aren't they?"
"Sure, let's see—headache powder should be over here—yes, I've got it. Valerian and mayapple will be in the herbal remedies section. Do you need the large or the small packets?"
"Large, please. I want to make sure I have enough to get the job done."
If Eunice had taught Cassie more about magic she might have deduced from Kevin's order that the housekeeper's need for headache powder was more than likely caused by Kevin dosing her with a potion of the other two. I remember Eunice having a laugh she didn't bother to hide from him when he bought his first batch of those three powders together. Maybe his order today was a test. If it was, he left the shop knowing just how innocent Cassie is of the goings on in Giles.
While Cassie bags Kevin's purchases, a young Asian man enters the shop. I recognize him as one of Eunice's less reputable customers. He goes directly to the counter and says in a heavy Chinese accent, "I'm here for Mr. Liu's package." Kevin moves off to the side, his transaction complete, but waits while the man and Cassie talk.