The No. 2 Feline Detective Agency

BOOK: The No. 2 Feline Detective Agency
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The No. 2 Feline Detective Agency

M
ANDY
M
ORTON

This book is dedicated to Hettie and Tilly, two very fine cats, and to Nicola, who shared the adventure

Hettie Bagshot sat at her desk and stared at the phone, willing it to spring to life. The reporter’s notepad and sharpened pencil sat unused by her right paw, and an un-mined drawer of business cards left no room for biscuits or other enticements. The reality of heading up a detective agency with nothing to detect was becoming a flea collar round her neck and – with the rent due on the Butters’ back room – something had to be done.

Betty and Beryl Butter had run a very successful cake, pastry and pie shop for many years, and a chance discussion at their counter while Hettie waited
for her ‘usual’ – a bacon and egg pie and a slice of Beryl’s Madeira cake – had led to the back room and small garden shed being proffered for two pounds a week plus electricity. To Hettie’s relief, the Butters had thrown in staff luncheon vouchers to complete the deal, but speaking of staff, where had Tilly got to? A pint of milk shouldn’t be too hard to trace on a busy high street, and – in spite of her arthritis and vertically challenged tail – Tilly had proved to be an able assistant. And she was cheap. That, of course, was the main thing.

An unfamiliar noise made Hettie’s elegant tabby fur stand on end, and it took her a moment to realise that the phone was actually working. Snatching up the receiver and trying not to panic, she stumbled out the words ‘No. 2 Feline Detective Agency, Hettie Bagshot speaking,’ completely forgetting to run through the list of options that she had trained Tilly to use as the official response to all potential clients. ‘Yes,’ she said brightly, ‘we
do
look for cats who have gone missing. These cases can be tricky, though, and we rather prefer it if the missing cats are dead. That way they don’t mind as much if it takes us a while to find them. Oh? They are dead?
Good
. Just one moment and I’ll jot down some details.’ Balancing the telephone receiver in one paw and reaching for her pencil and notepad with the other proved too much for Hettie: she, the pencil, the notepad and
eventually the phone all slid across the desk onto the floor with a resounding crash. Remarkably, the caller was still hanging on when Hettie – now in the recovery position – resumed the conversation. ‘I do apologise,’ she said. ‘The builders are with us this morning. We’re refitting our offices to accommodate more staff, due to the recent demand on our services. Now, where were we?’ Lying on the floor under her desk, Hettie realised that she had no idea who was on the end of the line. ‘Shall I take some details?’ she asked. ‘You are?’

‘Marcia Woolcoat, matron of the Furcross home for slightly older cats.’

Hettie scribbled the information down. ‘You say the missing cats were dead before they left you? I see. And can you tell me how they died, as this may have a bearing on the case? They wanted to die? Why would they want to do that?’ At this point, a pint of milk made its triumphant way through the door, hotly pursued by Tilly Jenkins, Hettie’s not-so-able assistant. Seeing that there had been a bit of an incident in her absence, Tilly proceeded to the kettle in the hope that a welcome cup of tea could fix anything. Confused by the extraordinary story unfolding on the other end of the phone, and distracted by the thought of tea and a nice biscuit, Hettie arranged a ‘face-to-face’ for later that afternoon at Furcross. She replaced the receiver in time to rescue a landslide of custard creams from
the staff sideboard, which Tilly had balanced too close to the edge. In fact, it was always thus with Tilly, and too close to the edge was fast becoming the mission statement for the No. 2 Feline Detective Agency.

Hettie missed the bus by a whisker, having paused to sample the latest creation from the Butters’ autumn pie promotion as she passed through the shop and out into the September drizzle. She hated getting her fur wet and pulled up the collar on her best mac, cursing the bus as it moved away down the High Street. This was her big chance to pay her rent and put her detective agency up there with the professionals, and she had squandered it by getting too close to a salmon turnover. Brushing the final crumbs from the front of her mac, she had just resigned herself to a long walk when help arrived in the shape of a beaten-up twin-wheel base transit van,
adorned with pipes and ladders and sporting a portrait of a tap dancing cat. The subtlety of the logo was lost on the community at large, but all knew the driver to be a very fine plumber – a cat who knew which end of a pipe the water came out of, and a grouter of high degree. Poppa Phene applied his brakes several times before finally coming to a standstill outside Oralia Claw’s nail bar. ‘Need a lift?’ he shouted.

Hettie bustled forward, putting on her widest smile, and swung herself into the passenger seat, purring with appreciation. She had known Poppa for years, and they had shared a number of scrapes and difficult moments. Hettie had travelled far and wide in this very van during their rock band roadie days, she being the glamorous front of various musical ensembles and he her driver and the intermediary in any dispute that arose on tour. Hettie’s music had been an acquired taste, a confused mix of folk, rock and country reggae, with an occasional nod to classical; her albums were favourably received, and had even become collectable as ‘progressive acid rock’ – whatever that meant. But she had realised long ago that there was no money in it, and her thirst for fame came second to her need to eat. Poppa had been her only constant companion on the musical rollercoaster, and they remained friends, living together for a while until Poppa’s eating habits and Hettie’s Virgo tendencies led to a certain amount of friction. But whenever the situation arose, they still made a handsome pair: a
dapper short-haired black-and-white cat, with a curvy long-haired tabby on his arm.

‘Do you know the Furcross home for slightly older cats?’ Hettie asked, making herself comfortable. ‘I need to be there in ten minutes.’

Poppa put his paw down and the transit jerked its way down the High Street, while Hettie struggled to release the handbrake that he had forgotten in his haste to please. Pussy Parton was coming to the end of one of her dead cat and Chevrolet songs on the van’s radio as Poppa indicated left and turned right into Sheba Gardens. ‘It’s just up here,’ he said. ‘My old gran was in there for a bit. She made a few friends, then invited them all to live with her as one of those alternative lifestyle communes. They dressed themselves in lime green and grew their own catnip, but they got busted eventually.’

‘For growing catnip?’

‘No!’ laughed Poppa. ‘It was the lime green that went against them – that and the chanting. They were done for breaching the peace, but they got away with the catnip for personal use. Here we are. Shall I wait for you? I’m finished for the day.’ Hettie wondered whether her arrival at Furcross in a plumber’s van had been noticed by her potential client, and suggested that Poppa might like to wait for her out in Sheba Gardens, where she would come and find him later.

Furcross House was an old and somewhat
dilapidated affair. Originally the town’s maternity home, the building had stood empty and abandoned for many years until Marcia Woolcoat’s numbers came up one Saturday night on
Scratch of the Day
. Hettie made her way up the drive, realising that her progress was observed by at least five pairs of eyes from the bay window to the left of the door, where a row of high wing-backed chairs contained a motley collection of elderly cats, all craning their necks in expectation. Hettie smoothed down her mac, only to discover that a half-eaten tuna melt had attached itself to the back during the ride in Poppa’s van; there was no alternative but to stick it in her pocket and deal with it later.

Before she could knock, the door to Furcross was hurled open to reveal an overweight, overdressed and overwrought ginger cat with at least three chins. ‘Welcome to the Furcross home for slightly older cats, where twelve-plus is the new six. Marcia Woolcoat, at your service. Please come in.’

Before Miss Woolcoat had the chance to run through tariffs, menus and room availability, Hettie cut in and announced her purpose. ‘Hettie Bagshot from the No. 2 Feline Detective Agency. You rang earlier about some missing residents.’

Deflated and a little embarrassed, Marcia took Hettie’s mac – complete with tuna melt – and hung it on a peg by the door. ‘Please come through to my parlour, where we can talk without disturbing my
residents. It’s been a very upsetting time. In fact, a number of them have felt the need to leave altogether, which is why I called you. My cook recommended you. She said you used to … er … hang out together in her rapper days – whatever that means. She’s from Jamaica – came over on the Catrush with her family.’

By now Hettie knew exactly who her benefactor was. ‘Marley Toke! I haven’t seen her for years. I must catch up with her, but first tell me about your missing cats.’

Marcia Woolcoat sank into her fireside chair, offering Hettie the seat opposite, and began her tale of woe. ‘At Furcross, we pride ourselves on offering every comfort to those cats who – for various reasons – wish to put themselves under our protective umbrella at a time in their lives when the outside world has become difficult. They arrive tired and worn out, off their food and occasionally suicidal. We cheer them up and give them nice meals – and if they really have had enough, we offer a special Dignicat service, complete with burial plot. Until recently, this was a facility that most residents signed up for as part of a special all-in package. We at Furcross believe that it is our absolute right to leave this earth in a manner, and at a time, of our own choosing. Society shuns older cats. It treats them as if they are only good for lying on cushions and dribbling, but here at Furcross we respect individuality and our residents are free to
leave whenever they wish – as long as they pay up to the end of the month, and are happy to forfeit their deposit. In short, we are the utopia for the grey cat pound.’

Marcia Woolcoat was teetering on hysteria, and her mission statement had begun to overshadow the mystery that brought Hettie to her door. ‘You mentioned that the missing cats were dead,’ Hettie interjected firmly, bringing Marcia down from her conference platform. ‘So I’m looking for their bodies?’

‘Yes, I’m afraid you are – if you’re willing to take the case. Before we go any further, I must know what your fee will be. With so many residents leaving us because of the … er … situation, and no real prospect of getting any new ones until matters are resolved, my coffers are running low – which is why I chose you. Marley told me that you were cheap and cheerful.’

Putting aside the professional slur on her reputation, Hettie remembered her urgent need to pay some rent to the Butters and swallowed what pride she had left. ‘Well, I would naturally need to oversee the case and report directly to you,’ she said, opening up negotiations, ‘but I may need to bring in reinforcements from my agency employees, who are all carefully picked by me. My standard daily rate is two pounds, plus a further pound per extra pair of paws.’ Seeing that Marcia Woolcoat showed no concern at the quoted price, and thinking she had pitched a little low, Hettie went in for the kill:
‘Of course, there is a mileage charge and luncheon vouchers, and I may have to make several phone calls. It’s surprising how many notebooks we get through, too.’

She made a mental note to tell Tilly to type up a rate card when she got back to the office; haggling devalued her sense of purpose. This was her very first job and she had absolutely no idea what to charge, but in bumping up the sundries she had misjudged Marcia Woolcoat’s business head.

‘Shall we say ten pounds per week to cover all costs, with the option of you and your operatives joining us for lunch and tea in our residents’ dining room as and when? I will be happy to advance you the sum of three pounds on account.’

Realising she had been well and truly trounced, but knowing that the offer of three pounds up front would dig her out of her current financial crisis, Hettie agreed to the terms offered on the understanding that there would be a bonus of five pounds if she solved the case within a month. As she had no experience whatsoever of crime and her staff was non-existent, the chances of her solving the case at all were slim. But Hettie had always subscribed to the Micawber principle of something turning up – and wasn’t that the first rule of detection?

The cats concluded their financial transaction, leaving Marcia Woolcoat’s biscuit tin three pounds
lighter and Hettie’s tenancy at the Butters assured for another week. Miss Woolcoat struggled from her chair in a somewhat ungainly manner and led her new employee out of the parlour. ‘The best way to explain the difficulties we are having here at Furcross is to show you what has occurred.’ Hettie followed her into the hall and through what appeared to be the dining room, then out of some French windows to the back garden, which boasted a well-kept lawn, several scratching areas and a number of flower beds planted with geraniums and cat mint. Straight ahead was a swing gate leading to another lawn, divided into small but tasteful burial plots, all sporting the ‘in-house’ style of headstone and Furcross logo – a reclining cat with a broad grin. Hettie found the logo a little disturbing, but said nothing as Marcia Woolcoat pushed on to the end of the most recent row. ‘You see, this is what’s happened: they’ve gone, three of our most recent Dignicat clients, fully paid-up and laid to rest, only to be dug up and stolen away without a trace.’

Hettie stared down at the three empty graves and wondered what she had taken on. It reminded her of Bert and Hair, the legendary body snatchers who stole corpses from graves and sold them to student vets and Chinese restaurants. She’d watched the film with Tilly only last week on their rental TV before a lack of funds forced them to send it back to the shop. ‘This is a most distressing case. I think it best if you tell me about
the events leading up to the discovery of the missing bodies. That will give me a clearer picture of what has occurred.’ Hettie was pleased with her opening gambit and knew that she would get chapter and verse from Miss Woolcoat whether she wanted it or not. ‘Shall we sit over there in the sun while you tell me all you know?’

Marcia Woolcoat sailed across the burial plots, coming to rest on a bench by the hedge. ‘It was last Monday,’ she began. ‘Three of our top-of-the-range clients had booked their Dignicat procedures – or, as we like to call it, their final journeys – with our resident nurse, Alma Mogadon. I should say at this point that a number of our clients prefer a group departure from this life. It makes their special day so much more pleasant and there really is a lovely atmosphere before they fall asleep. Those scheduled for departure were the misses Vita and Virginia – lifelong friends, if you know what I mean, and both still very beautiful. Vita was struggling with a nasty bug, and Virginia couldn’t cope without her, so off they went together. The other client was Pansy Merlot, heiress to the Milgate bottling plant business. Pansy had become a little too fond of the family’s endeavours and was drinking her way through her inheritance when she started seeing mice climbing the walls of her bedroom; as there were no mice, due to our strict rodent control policy, she decided to get off the bus, as she put it, before things got any worse.
She was a top model before she embraced the bottling plant, I believe.’

Hettie found herself dozing off in the September sunshine, and only the thought of Poppa waiting patiently in Sheba Gardens kept her sufficiently alert to make the correct noises. Marcia Woolcoat battled on with her story. ‘Once the procedure was complete, the bodies were prepared for burial by Nurse Mogadon. As they had signed up for our five-star service, Oralia Claw, our local beautician, gave them a final makeover – hair, nails, jewellery, etcetera. The clients were then laid to rest in their bespoke caskets, surrounded by the little treasures that had meant so much to them in life. That, I might add, was an idea I came up with after visiting a Pharaoh cat’s tomb on one of my educational forays into the unknown, and it serves the practical purpose of clearing away the old to make way for the new.’ Hettie was getting used to Marcia Woolcoat’s logic, and she had to admire her creative approach to getting rid of unwanted personal effects in readiness for new clients and their clutter. ‘The open caskets were displayed in the dining room during lunch, when residents added small tokens of sustenance to equip the departed for their journey to the Elysian Fields. Then they were taken back to the departure suite, where they were screwed down and borne gently to the burial ground. The staff and residents gathered for a final farewell before Digger Patch filled them in, so to speak.’

‘Digger Patch? Isn’t he that old TV gardener turned romantic novelist?’ interrupted Hettie, knowing he had been on Tilly’s reading list for years.

‘Yes, that’s right. His publisher turned the last book down on grounds of obscenity, so he booked himself into Furcross on the understanding that he would be in charge of the gardens. He helps out with all the burials, digs the graves and fills them in. He’s marvellous for his age. Anyway, where did I get to? Oh yes, after the graveside farewells we all trooped back to the dining room for tea, leaving Mr Patch to do the final interments. Marley had put on a lovely spread in accordance with Vita and Virginia’s final wishes, and Marilyn Repel – one of the residents – gave a medley of show tunes on the piano. We were all cleared away and settled to the TV news by six.’

Hettie wondered if a blow-by-blow account of the average evening at Furcross was about to unfold, and headed Marcia Woolcoat off at the pass. ‘Who discovered the bodies were missing, and when?’

‘It was Tuesday lunchtime. Nola – that’s Nola Ledge, our retired schoolmistress – was taking flowers to her sister Dolly’s grave when she noticed the mounds of earth beside the new plots. It gave her such a turn that she ran slap bang into Digger Patch’s wheelbarrow. I was summoned immediately, and after seeing for myself that the new graves were empty, I called the residents and staff together and ordered Marley Toke
to serve lunch to give me time to decide what to do. By tea, one of our clients had left and two more were making arrangements to go, and Marley – seeing my distress – suggested I call you in.’

BOOK: The No. 2 Feline Detective Agency
7.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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