Monday, June 6, 2011

Cats Closed by Mary Lou Pearce

Cats Closed
by Mary Lou Pearce

The sleek cat stepped daintily over the body lying in its path. Even more daintily, it sat down and began to lick the blood from its paws as it stared through slitted eyes into near space. Abruptly, the regal Siamese sat tall and began to yowl, heart-breakingly human in its anger and pain.

Repeated calls to the ASPCA and the increasingly strong smell coming from the condo eventually brought authority, of all shapes, sizes and kinds. The deceased proved to be deli heiress, Magda Steinberg, known for both her philanthropy and her champion Siamese, Ming China Doll. There was nothing obvious missing from the scene, in spite of the over-abundance of fence-able items scattered throughout the luxury apartment and the blatant signs of ransacking that were everywhere.

All efforts to capture the frightened Ming China Doll proved hopeless. She knew every nook and cranny and used them all like a seasoned escape artist. Lt. Erickson knew, from the time he was assigned to this case, that his only witness, a sensitive, excitable feline could only be soothed and eventually, questioned by one exceptional man.

He punched a certain unlisted number he knew by heart into his cell phone and waited impatiently. On the eighth ring, the distinctive voice he had been waiting to hear finally came on the line. Wasting no time, the policeman cut off the usual pleasantries before they started.

“Milo, it’s Lee. I just got a case that’s right up your alley,” he growled into the phone. The reply he got made him hold the phone several inches from his ear.

“No, that was not a sick joke on your middle name! Jeeze, I’m the last guy to make jokes about something like that! Look,” the red bearded policeman continued roughly, “this one’s really a stumper and there’s a cat right in the middle of it.”

The bulky cop leaned on the door molding and pushed back his visored cap as he continued. “Yes, I said…cat! Come down right now so I can fill you in, okay?”

The middle-aged lieutenant with the typically Irish face and the unlikely name of Lee F. Erickson barely finished giving the address before he heard the connection get cut off abruptly. He sighed gustily and pushed off wearily from the door frame. It was going to be a long day!

Thinking longingly of a tall cold one, the enjoyment of which he’d given up six months ago on doctor’s orders, Erickson jumped guiltily a few minutes later as the familiar basso profundo voice hailed him heartily.

“Lee F., you old Viking by-blow you! What’s all the caterwauling?” The tall, thin man dressed all in black who addressed him blinked owlishly through thick glasses and grinned broadly.

The big policeman groaned and wished he had that beer after all. This amazing man, who looked nothing like his voice, was prone to using many allusions to cats in his everyday conversation. As if his name, Milo Allee Katz wasn’t enough, this was a man with a most amazing, almost unbelievable talent.

Milo Katz understood cats. He bent all of his genius IQ and considerable common sense to doing just that, on a regular basis. He was known internationally as the ultimate expert on communications with and about cats, wild or domestic.

Many hailed him as the only truly qualified cat psychiatrist in the known world. Lee F. could and did believe anything he heard from and about this man. He’d seen him at work more than once.

It was as if Milo could read a cat’s mind or maybe the cat read his, the big policeman never knew exactly which. How he did what he did really didn’t matter much. What did was that Milo got excellent results and fast.

“Where’s the little beauty?” Milo asked Lee.

Seeing Lee’s hopeless shrug, Milo grinned anew. Reaching into the pocket of his height of fashion suit jacket, the thin man pulled out a handful of something. Placing his hand flat, he began making incredibly real-sounding vocalizations like a Siamese.

In less time than it took for Lee to wonder what he had in his hand, Milo was stroking a trembling Ming China Doll. When she was finished eating her snack, the man scooped her up and slipped an elastic collar with a leash attached over her head simultaneously. “But we tried every kind of food we could find in the house to get her to come out, what finally got her?” Lee couldn’t resist asking.

Milo shook his head as if he would never understand how someone couldn’t know such a simple thing. “The trick with these pampered cats is to offer them something they’ve never even smelled before. In this case, imitation bacon bits.” Lee started to roar with laughter.

“I’ll have you know it works every time,” Milo protested somewhat huffily. “If you don’t need me or Ming China Doll any longer, I think I’ll take the poor, traumatized thing home with me.” Lee nodded, still chuckling.

After both cat and man had left, the policeman took a last look around. After seeing the coroner off with the body and making sure all the experts from Forensics had gotten what they needed and left, he ordered his men to secure the crime scene with police seals and yellow crime scene tape across the windows and doors. Soon all was quiet.

Yawning nonstop, Lee slapped his pal Harvey Tynes on his blue clad shoulder.

“Do me a big favor, pal ‘o mine; take first watch, okay?”

Harvey nodded and said with a grin, “You owe me one, Lee-F, today’s my afternoon off!”

Before they sealed the main door, Lee ran back in and brought out a large, leather Windsor chair. Setting it down beside the door, he brushed off the leather and plumped up the pillow. “There you go, Harve; a throne fit for a prince among friends,” he said with a flourish.

With Harvey’s roar of laughter and comments about blarney ringing in his ears, Lee headed home. It seemed like his head had barely hit the pillow, when his bedside phone shrilled. He swore colourfully when he could finally understand what the voice on the other end was trying to tell him.

On his way back to the Steinberg condo, Lee tried to collect his thoughts. When the next guy on the watch rotation had come to relieve Harvey, he had found the police seals broken and Harvey dead in the big chair, seemingly killed by a single blow to the side of his head. Apparently, the condo had then been, methodically this time, ransacked a second time.

Grabbing his cell phone, Lee ordered a guard sent to Milo’s brownstone. The only reason anyone would return so soon to the scene of the crime was because they didn’t get what they had killed for in the first place. That could only mean they wanted Ming China Doll, maybe for cat-napping and ransom purposes and were surprised by Magda Steinberg, whom they were forced to kill before she could identify them.

The young rookie pulled up to the brownstone and parked her cruiser. She stepped out and stood looking at the old house. Two gateposts topped with black marble cats guarded the walk up to the door.

The walk itself was made up of stepping stones shaped like cat paw prints. As she walked quickly up to the massive door with its stained glass window in the shape of cats' eyes and a huge lion’s head knocker, she decided this was a person after her own heart. She smiled to herself.

When she reached the door and used the knocker, a loud purring sound came from it instead of a thump. Smiling wider, the policewoman couldn’t wait to meet the famous Milo Allee Katz.

When she opened the door and stepped in at the request of a deep bass voice, she wasn’t surprised to see a tall thin black-clad man entirely surrounded by cats sitting in a Lazy Boy recliner and sipping what smelled like catnip tea.

“Yes, officer…what can I do for you?” the man asked.

“If you’re Milo Allee Katz, then you can let me come in and guard you and Ming China Doll” the officer said, holding out her hand.

Clearing his lap, Milo stood up and stepped forward to take her hand and shake it.

“Now why, Officer Calico would any of us need guarding?” Milo asked, raising one dark eyebrow.

As she explained, Milo’s face grew more and more solemn, even as he handed her a cup and filled it with tea.

“So, you’re our guard? What makes you the best man…I mean person for the job?” Milo asked when she had finished and was sipping her tea.

She grinned. “I am an experienced witness protection officer, I’ve read all your books and I love cats,” she said, ticking each item off on her ringless left hand.

Milo beamed benevolently at her and said, “Well, a fan! I was just about to try finding out what happened from Ming China Doll, maybe you’d like to sit in on the session,” he queried jovially.

Officer Calico nodded eagerly, in spite of the fact that as her guard she would have to stay with Ming China Doll anyway.

“I’m afraid you might find my methods a little unorthodox,” Milo said over his shoulder as he carried Ming China Doll draped over the other shoulder into a small library and study off the living room.

“You see, I do most of my communicating with animals, cats in particular, by mental telepathy. This can take some time depending on the animal’s willingness to cooperate.”

“At other times, I use mind reading while the animal is under the influence of hypnosis. Many times, I just observe the cat and it begins revealing clues by its actions and attitude. But then,” he finished as he settled down in a chair that stood behind an ebony desk that was a carved marvel of hundreds of cats entwined to make its legs and sides, while the more solid top was Birdseye maple assembled cleverly to look like as many cats’ eyes. "You probably know all this, since you claim to have read all my books,” he said with a twinkle across at the officer.

Settling a tense and trembling Ming China Doll on the desk blotter in front of him, Milo began, while Officer Calico watched in rapt astonishment. Three hours later, the thin man in black was totally exhausted; Ming China Doll was hysterically bouncing off walls and Officer Calico was sympathetically making coffee for the fifth time. Nothing was getting the elegant Siamese to open up and “tell” what she knew, Milo explained with bewilderment.

As the harried man sipped the strong brew and stared morosely at the elegant lady cat, who by now had finally tucked under paws and perched on her brisket and was staring intently at him. He was looking very dispirited. Suddenly, all three jumped as Milo’s purring doorbell was heard loudly and insistently. Wearily, Milo waved distractedly at Officer Calico when she reminded him that she should really answer all door while she was present in the house.

When Milo saw whom she had with her when she came back, his face brightened immediately and relaxed in a smile when he saw what they were carrying. “Nona!” he cried, jumping up to take the huge covered platter and assorted plates out of his grandmother’s hands. As she supervised their trip to the kitchen and talked a mile a minute, Nona Katz kept patting Officer Calico’s hand and cheek affectionately.

After he had settled his tiny grandmother comfortably in her favorite armchair with a cup of tea at her elbow, Milo showed his curiosity at last.

“Nona, what are you doing here?” he demanded sternly.

Ming China Doll jumped up into the old lady’s lap, settled herself in the crook of one arm and began purring as she was being stroked gently.

“A better question, bubal, is where you got my friend Magda Steinberg’s precious angel, China Doll.” the old lady countered, looking at him over the top of her cat’s eye glasses.

Officer Calico turned to the old lady. “You knew Mrs. Steinberg, Mrs. Katz?”

“Of course,” the old lady said, still stroking the velvety cat. “We were girls together, even came to America on the same ship. Why, we even became citizens on the same day, too,” she finished proudly.

Milo and the officer looked at each other.

“Magda never put on airs, even if she was entitled, she would always play canasta with her old friends, even after she got her rich husband,” continued Milo’s Nona.

“You still haven’t answered my question, how come you got Ming China Doll?”

When Milo told her gently about the death of her old friend, his grandmother sighed deeply then said matter-of-factly, “I’ll sit Shiva with her family when the time comes. But what about my little sweetheart, what happens to her?” The frail senior hugged the sleepy cat and began murmuring to her in a strange tongue.

Officer Calico cocked an eyebrow askance at Milo; he smiled back and said, “Yiddish. She speaks it most of the time among her old friends, especially when she or they are upset.” The tall man slapped his forehead.

“Yiddish. That was the problem all along, the cat only understands Yiddish!” Over the next hour, with a lot of help from his grandmother, Milo astounded Officer Calico once more by coming out with a plausible story that he claimed came from the cat!

After she had taken down the story, Officer Calico asked to use the phone. When she got through to the precinct, she found out Lee F. was out breaking the sad news to Magda’s family. She left a message and began to have a cozy chat with Milo’s Nona, just to see what else she could find out about Magda Steinberg and her family.

What a family! Lee F. slapped his notebook shut and leaned back in his rickety office chair. That Aymes, the butler and only full time servant to Magda Steinberg, strictly speaking wasn’t family, certainly not officially.

But what he didn’t know about her personal business and private affairs wasn’t worth knowing, it seemed. He claimed he was out doing the marketing yesterday at the time of the murder and said any number of tradesmen could vouch for it, since they all knew him at the specialty stories where he shopped at Madam’s insistence. When Erickson prodded, he finally conceded he was named in Madam’s will for quite a considerable sum but only on the condition he kept Ming China Doll in the manner she had become accustomed to until her death.

Then, it seemed, a monthly allowance, which he admitted was more than generous, would be his for life. Lee F. had checked his story and found several witnesses that knew him in the stores he had mentioned stopping in. Still, shopping would not take that long and who knew what an old retainer like him would do to be rid of the impediment of a spoiled cat and an even more spoiled old lady, in order to get the bequest and allowance early.

Then, there was Ida Lassiter. According to her, she had been the victim’s right hand woman. Personal secretary and companion for ten years to the deceased, she had told him every detail of the will and any questions he asked about the old lady’s business affairs, she seemed to know all the answers and then some.

Erickson studied his notes from the interview with Ida again. It seemed that the only heirs were Mrs. Steinberg’s twin girls, May and June. According to Ida, as she insisted flirtatiously that she be called, those two were shopping addicts married to gamblers who couldn’t keep a job to save their bank accounts.

Recently, Ida claimed, Mrs. Steinberg had threatened them, both to their faces and behind their backs to her lawyer, to cut them off and divide the estate between Aymes and herself. So there seemed to be a solid motive for the daughters to get rid of the old lady before she could change her will and if Magda had succeeded in cutting the girls off, Ida now stood to get a hefty chunk of cash for herself.

The daughters, speaking irritatingly in chorus and between sobs, claimed they were shopping at the time of their mother’s death. They had credit cards receipts to prove it, unfortunately. As for Ida herself, it seemed she was busy with the hundred and one things she did every day for her employer and wasn’t home at the time of the murder.

When Lee talked to the old lady’s lawyer, he bore out Ida’s claim that one of the places she had stopped was his office with the newly signed and witnessed revised will. So, here he was with four suspects, all with compelling motives for murder, all with seeming airtight alibis and not a real clue in sight. All he could hop for now was that Milo was having some kind of luck with that cat!

“Yes, Lee,” Milo said serenely into the phone, “I have done ‘my thing,’ as you so quaintly put it, and I’m pretty sure she knows who the murderer is.” He listened intently, absently stroking Ming China Doll, who was dozing on his lap.

“No,” he continued reluctantly, “I can’t prove she really knows, that’s your job, isn’t it?”

Relenting, Milo finally worked out a plan with Lee that he was satisfied would work, in spite of the policeman’s very vocal skepticism and hung up the phone. He smiled down at the sleeping Siamese.

“Well,” he murmured to the cat, “I guess we’ll know tonight whether you know who done it, eh?” Ming’s ear twitched and one eye opened and closed as if in a wink.

At seven o’clock, Milo stood outside the ornate front door of Magda Steinberg’s condo once more. Beside him stood his grandmother holding the carrier where Ming China Doll was telling the whole world how insulted she felt by the treatment she was receiving. Through the door, they could hear the sounds of several voices all talking, arguing, pleading and generally causing a stir.

Milo smiled down at his frail grandmother. She was almost grinning and there was a light of avid curiosity in her eyes as she reached up to press the bell again, this time more firmly. He hadn’t really wanted to bring her, but she had helped him with Ming China Doll and she deserved to see that the killer of her old friend was brought to swift and proper justice.

A harassed looking Lee F. opened the door. “It’s about time” he roared, “I’ve almost got a mutiny on my hands here. What took you so long?”

Milo and his Nona moved into the elaborate living room to find every one of the suspects seated around the room, some holding drinks in their hands.

When the group saw the carrier and heard the cat, they all stopped talking at once. The air was so full of tension it could have been cut with a knife as they looked at each other and then at the new arrivals uneasily.

Milo’s grandmother quietly set the carrier down in the center of the room. Milo opened the door and Ming China Doll stepped out daintily. With high raised tail and whiskers twitching, she circled the room, sniffing each person in turn.

When she got to the twins, sitting side by side like bookends, she bristled. With a yowl fit to wake the dead, she leaped onto the head of one, digging all her claws into her scalp. When the other tried to remove the cat, it clawed her face viciously.

Milo leaped to remove the cat and expertly put her back into the carrier. Lee stepped up to the two women and began to read them their rights. He had barely started when Milo stopped him with a loud clearing of his throat.

“Excuse me, Lieutenant,” said Officer Calico, who had entered the condo behind Milo and his grandmother, then stood back in the shadows to see what happened, just as Milo had asked her to.

“I think you’ll find those two ladies are not the only two twins in the room.” She pointed the carrier toward the butler Aymes and the companion, Ida Lassiter.

When she opened it, Ming China Doll sprang out. She approached the pair cautiously. When she reached their feet, she deliberately peed on each of their shoes in turn.

“I’d say you have your proof, Lee,” Milo pointed out mildly as he reached out one long arm to stop Aymes from running from the room.

His grandmother tossed the empty cat carrier under Ida Lassiter’s feet as she tried to escape at the same time. Officer Calico and Lee Erickson had them both cuffed before the others in the room could do more than gasp.

“So,” said Lee F. over Chinese food at Ling Wong’s Oriental for Occidentals Palace. “Aymes and Lassiter were fraternal twins. But if they were named in the will, why kill Magda?”

Milo passed the Chicken Soo Guy to his Nona with a sigh. “Don’t forget Magda didn’t follow up on her threat to cut out her daughters and leave the whole fortune to her faithful retainers,” he reminded the other man patiently.

“So those two decided to fake the cat’s kidnapping to get some ready money so that they could arrange the death of the old lady so it would look like she died of a broken heart at the loss of her beloved Ming China Doll.” Officer Calico continued the story as she served herself some more chicken balls with sweet and sour sauce.

“But, as Ming China Doll ‘told’ us, poor Magda caught them at it, so they were forced to kill her before she could expose them,” finished Milo’s grandmother as she emptied the plate of fortune cookies into her voluminous handbag.

Lee F. sighed as he pushed himself back from the table and pulled out this wallet to pay the check. “Speaking of Her Highness,” said the big policeman, "What happens to her now?”

Milo’s grandmother lifted a cat carrier onto the empty chair beside her and poked some chicken through the mesh. ”Magda would have wanted her Ming to go to someone who loves her,” the old lady said as a throaty purr issued from the box.

“But Nona,” protested Milo, “What will you do with her when you go to Florida in the winter?”

His Nona winked and smiled across at Officer Calico, “I think I know the perfect cat sitter,” she said brashly.

As the young lady blushed, Milo said nonchalantly, “Well, I guess it’s the least I can do to visit while you’re gone and see how Ming China Doll is doing.” Nona and Lee smiled at each other.

It was definitely time to mark this one “Cats Closed” before things got any more out of hand.


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