Upon arriving at headquarters, my eyes bloodshot and my nose raw from yesterday’s investigations, I was greeted by an excited Mittens, his whole body still charged from the previous day’s catnip binge. He said, “I am ready to solve the case, my friend. We must gather everyone. Vite. Vite.”1
We spent the morning requesting that all of the suspects meet us at Trouble’s apartment at 1 p.m. sharp. To my amazement they all agreed, even Trouble.
We set off for the appointed meeting on foot. Mittens brought with him a black, wheeled suitcase, which he dragged behind him. Because he used his right paw to lead the suitcase, he had to walk on two hind paws, which gave him an unsteady, almost drunken gait. The thought of asking what he was bringing briefly crossed by mind, but I assumed it was some sort of prop to make the upcoming encounter more dramatic, so didn’t bother. Two other officers accompanied us: a Jack Russell and an Italian Greyhound. Between them they carried the purloined box. While Mittens and the toy dogs proceeded with their tiny, burdened steps, I loped ahead.
Although I still had not been allowed by Mittens to read the coroner’s report, I was certain that Fitch’s severed hind leg was the instrumental cause of Tulip’s death; I was equally certain that neither Fitch nor Bull was the murderer, the former because he was too beta, the latter because he was too alpha.
With two suspects down, that left Euphemia and Trouble. They had acted like conspirators yesterday, rushing away the moment they saw me. What might appear as an action provoked by a guilty mind, on reflection seemed less so. Guilty animals stand their ground, and lie; it was the innocent who got confused and acted impulsively. Despite her actions last night, was Euphemia simply ashamed to be seen with her sister’s lover so soon after Tulip had been murdered? That seemed likely to me.
And what about Trouble? I was as unconvinced of his guilt as ever. I never believed this untamed tom would use a weapon to murder the dam he’d dumped but still loved.
In my mind’s eye I recalled the angle of the gash on Tulip’s throat.
Tulip hadn’t been murdered. She had killed herself.
We arrived at our appointment at precisely 1 p.m. Euphemia, Bull and Fitch were there, but not Trouble.
Trouble’s absence did not perplex Mittens. The Cat Detective removed a pawful of treats from his satchel, and methodically laid them in a line from the fire escape to the floor where we had gathered. He then removed a can opener from his satchel, and went through the motions of using it. The bait worked. First we heard a meow. Then two more meows. Trouble appeared on the window ledge that opened out onto the fire escape. He sniffed the air a couple of times, and then leaped to the branch where the first treat lay. He gobbled up that treat, and the entire string of them, until he found himself enveloped by our society.
Mittens called the meeting to order. “Let us begin with the murder weapon.” He removed Fitch’s left hind leg from the purloined box. The leg had been mounted on a thin stick of mahogany wood; sharp claws poked out of a bloody mass of white fur around the paw. He dramatically pointed the leg at Bull as he said, “Did you kill Tulip using this heinous weapon?”
Bull was unperturbed by the question. He barked, “No.”
“Non, indeed.” Mittens said. “You had no motive, did you? Tulip was a valuable business partner, and les chiens sonts loyal en affaires.”2
Having already solved the case to my satisfaction, I found Mittens’ histrionics tiresome. I scampered over to the small floor-box that Trouble had rested in yesterday, and settled down. My ears were drooping and my eyes were heavy with fatigue.
The Cat Detective now turned dramatically to Fitch. “Is this your leg?”
Fitch looked at Bull, and then nodded yes.
“Did you kill Tulip?”, Mittens continued,
Fitch, once again taking a cue from Bull, nodded no.
“Mais, non.” Mittens echoed dramatically. “Of course you did not kill Tulip. Fitch is a loyal dog; you do what Bull tells you to do. Why would Bull tell you to kill Tulip?”
Mittens sniffed loudly, no doubt inhaling a stray piece of catnip that was stuck on a whisker, and then continued, “And now to the prime suspect, Trouble”.
The Cat Detective leaped to the wheel suitcase he had dragged with him from Headquarters. His sudden movement startled the toy dogs, and captured my attention.
Mittens’ removed a heavy object from the suitcase with a thump. What exactly he was doing was obscured by his large, furry body. He turned suddenly and exclaimed, “maintenant la vérité sera révélée”3 I leaped up in astonishment. Mittens was holding a vacuum nozzle in his right paw, as if it was a six-shooter.
Québécois, Canadian and international law speaks with one voice about the few situations in which pawed mammals can be exposed to vacuum cleaners without their consent; this situation, a police interrogation, was certainly not one of them. Mittens was one flick of a finger away from a trip to the International Court of Justice at the Hague.
I looked at Mittens’ eyes. There was no sign of madness in them. If anything, his manner was that of a chemistry professor preparing to add vinegar to bicarbonate of soda: loopy, but fun. I realized that what I was witnessing was not madness at all, but sanity – sanity so extreme it allowed Mittens’ neo-cortex to defy a limbic system that must have been screaming for him to drop the vacuum nozzle and hide.
Euphemia had backed off into a corner, where she was now burying herself under a rug; Bull and Fitch had retreated too, but in a more dignified manner. The Jack Russell and the Italian Greyhound had both disappeared entirely. That’s what happens when you ask toys to do an alpha’s work.4 Only Trouble stood his ground. I briefly wondered if he was as crazy-sane as Mittens, but thought not. Domesticated cats anticipate; ferals react. Trouble would explode the instant the vacuum cleaner was turned on.
Although Mittens was in theory my partner, I knew it was my duty to disarm him immediately. The last thing Canada needed was a scandal about some feline rock star being threatened by a cop in the presence of an Upper Canadian dog who did nothing.
Mittens moved slowly toward Trouble. The feral inched backward, his nails making deep cuts into the floor as he did so. I crawled forward on my belly at a tangent to them both.
I was a step and a pounce away from Mittens. He knew how close I was. Without looking at me he said “Barks, don’t do anything rash. I’m just about to put the vacuum cleaner away. My little experiment is over. I have learned what I need to know. Regardez.5 He carefully put the vacuum cleaner nozzle down. For one second after he did so the vacuum cleaner roared. A startled Trouble sprang toward the nearest wall. For a long moment he hung there, held up only by his fangs and claws, and then slowly slid to the floor.
Our stunned silence was broken by a relaxed Mittens, who said. “Excusez moi.6 There must be something wrong with the vacuum’s power switch. De rien.7” He shrugged and then proudly walked over to the fang marks that Trouble had made on the wall. He turned to face us and said to us with a little bow, “Regardez bien.8 These marks are the same as the ones found on Tulip’s neck.”
I was outraged: Mittens could not possibly reach this conclusion without a detailed forensic analysis. The Maestro was not finished. Mittens turned to face Trouble, who was now grooming himself solipsistically, and said, “Did you kill Tulip?”
The feral finished licking his hair, which had become spiked from fright, back into place before he answered. Trouble’s reply surprised me, “Yes, I did kill Tulip. In a way.” He spoke with the straightforward innocence of a feral. “That’s right. I killed her, but so did La Belle Dam. We did it together. With Tulip’s help.”
Mittens was visibly off-put. His intention was to exonerate Trouble. He said. “But Monsieur Trouble, you didn’t murder Tulip by tearing her carotid artery with your fangs, did you?”
“Non, non. I killed her when I told her that I was going to sleep rough from now on; when I told her that La Belle Dam had won. Tulip said if I went feral she could not live any more. That is what she said to me: I can not live any more.” Trouble shrugged. “But what could I do? I am feral.” Trouble glanced at Euphemia, and then hopped onto the window sill. Euphemia followed his leap with wide, watery eyes.
Trouble now sat on the window-ledge beside the back fire escape. He was ready to leave us at any time. Indeed, his alien manner indicated that he had long since departed. I turned my gaze to Euphemia. She realized how stark her options really were. Although she styled herself as the wild-cat classics scholar who got what she wanted, there is a gap between domestication and ferality as wide – or as narrow – as the ledge on which Trouble perched. On the other side of that gap everything is different. There is certainly no time for scholarship, for scholarship requires a sense of history, and ferals are creatures of the present.
I could write about the play of emotions on Euphemia’s muzzle, but the tear that was forming in her right eye told me one emotion was dominant: regret, not at what should have been but what could not be. A domesticated feral is a paradox. We can stalk such impossibilities, and experience a thrill when we think we’ve captured one, but the impossible always eludes us.
I thought then about Tulip, with her lioness ears. How difficult the decision not to go feral must have been for her, for she thought her affectation of wildness could encompass all the world, which eliminated the need for her to make a choice. The world is harder than that. Certainly we can modify animal made-boundaries like national borders and laws, just as we can trim our ears and put spots on our fur. We cannot change the boundaries that arise from what we are.
The tear that had been trying to wrest itself out of Euphemia’s right eye finally succeeded: it fell as two drops onto her whiskers just as Trouble, without a backward glance, leaped over the window-ledge and disappeared into a shadow.
We agreed that our next destination should be the Kitten Klub. Mittens raced ahead, while I dawdled, curious to see if our story had made the papers. It had: La Derrière’s banner headline read, “Dog suspected in sex kitten slay”. The Gazebo asked the question that was on the mind of every dog in Westmount, “Is a riot looming?”.
The Kitten Klub was designed in a cat friendly style similar to Trouble’s apartment, but was grander – and less dog friendly. Mittens navigated the club with ease, while I proceeded slowly and carefully over, under and through faux roots, branches and blankets.
It was difficult to assess how crowded the club was, because so much of feline interior design is about hiding. From the density of cat smells in the air, I guessed that it was very crowded. I certainly kept finding my way blocked by felines. After a half dozen awkward encounters I gave up on my vision entirely and navigated by sound and smell alone. Inching forward, with my nose close to the ground, I must have looked like the hound-dog copper my mother-in-law warned my mate I would become.
Tonight’s headline act was Euphemia. Her first set was in one hour. Mittens’ nodded toward her dressing room. We would pay her a visit before she performed.
Euphemia greeted us while remaining seated in front of a theatrical mirror, applying spots to her pearl white fur. “I didn’t expect to see you twice in one day, Detective Mittens.” I fear my gaze lingered indecently, for she suddenly became embarrassed. “This isn’t me.” Euphemia spoke with conviction, but her words were unbelievable: she looked like she had been born to play this role.
Mittens rephrased my unanswered question. He asked drily, “Forgive my prying, Mademoiselle, but would you mind telling us how you came to be working here? Is this the realization of a life long dream, perhaps?”
Euphemia laughed in a coarse, but genuine fashion. “This my dream, hah. This couldn’t be further from my dream. If I could be anything, I’d be a farmer poet, like Hesiod, maybe. I’m doing this as a favour to Bull while he sorts things out. Its no effort for me. I know all of Tulip’s routines – she use to rehearse with me.”
Euphemia’s scent changed. Mittens’ scent began to change, too. Was Euphemia’s pheronomic charm getting to him? I couldn’t help but wonder.
Euphemia purred as she leaped beside Mittens,“There is something I want to tell you, Detective. I think it may be a clue. On the day of her death, I saw Tulip with a box.”
Mittens ears centred themselves on Euphemia’s voice. “What did this box look like?”
“It was 15 centimetres on two sides and half a metre long. Big enough to hold – uh – the left hind leg of a Pyrenees.”
“Were there any distinguishing marks on this box?” I asked.
“Yes. It had a white ribbon. And a card with gold leaf writing. I never got close enough to read the words. Tulip hid the box from me when she saw me looking at her.”
“Do you know where she hid it?”
“I don’t know for certain. There is a false bottom in her armoire. She sometimes hides things there.”
Why was Euphemia telling us now, and not earlier? Did she know we had found out about the murder weapon? I had an inspiration. I barked, “Who is La Belle Dam sans Merci?”
Euphemia began to purr and move languorously. When she spoke, she didn’t answer my question; instead she quoted,
“I believe Mademoiselle is indicating that she is this merciless cat” Mittens noted laconically.
Euphemia nodded negatively, “Non, Monsieur Cat Detective. La Belle Dam was my nick name for Tulip. I used to call her that when we fought. She used to get jealous because I always got my way.”
“Do you still get your way?” I asked.
Euphemia replied without hesitation, “Yes.”
It had not occurred to me that sharing an office with an aged tabby whose mange you couldn’t distinguish from his tweeds constituted “getting your way”. But I guess it does. Teaching at a famous University is quite an honour. In what other ways had Euphemia gotten her way? Was she getting her way now? Did getting her way involve Trouble?
After a polite pause I asked, “What about Trouble? Did he know about this pet-name? Did he use it?”
“What?” Euphemia was so distracted that my question startled her. She composed herself with a preen, and then said, “Trouble, why yes he picked up the phrase La Belle Dam from Tulip. Tulip was proud of the epithet and used it to describe herself when she was feeling particularly wild. Of course Trouble used the phrase differently. Her manner suddenly became much more sombre. “He, he …”. She stopped speaking, and began to groom herself.
Mittens gracefully leaped over the table onto the cushions beside Euphemia. He placed his paws around her ears and fervently licked the part of her forehead immediately above her eyes. Euphemia began to purr, but she was far from relaxed: her tail wagged agitatedly. Mittens’ retook his seat and said, “Madam, we were talking about how Trouble uses the phrase ‘La Belle Dam’.” He urged her on with a voice that was part whisper and part purr.
Euphemia was once again composed. She said, “Trouble uses the phrase, but differently than I do. For him La Belle Dam Sans Merci is a symbol of the allure of the wild.”
“Did Trouble ever called Tulip La Belle Dam?”
“Just once. Fur flew: Tulip thought he was being sarcastic about how domesticated she was.”
“Was he being sarcastic?” Mittens asked.
“I don’t know” Euphemia replied pensively. “Ferals aren’t really like that, are they? Y’know, sarcastic, condescending. They’re more direct. Maybe Tulip became angry because in her heart she knew she could never be truly wild, and Trouble’s words reminded her of that.” She shrugged.
I uttered a short, sharp yap to indicate agreement with Euphemia’s ambivalence. While I did so, Mittens inserted another question into the conversation,
“Mademoiselle, did Trouble ever ask you to go feral with him?”
The Cat Detective’s brazenness made my jaw go slack. With one simple question Mittens had offended the honour of both Euphemia and Trouble, while tainting the memory of dead Tulip. I braced myself, certain that Euphemia was about to attack Mittens. Instead she lightly hopped onto the ground, and then circumnavigated our couch, marking it with her muzzle as she went.
Of all of our suspects, Euphemia was the one with the best motive, jealousy. She obviously loved Trouble; but it took nothing to imagine her killing Tulip in a jealous rage. There was one glaring error with the theory: anyone could see that Trouble was a tom no molly could tame. Surely, Euphemia knew this. She was a clever cat.
When Euphemia had settled down again, Mittens’ changed the topic of our conversation. He asked Euphemia, “Did you ever want to be a performer?”
Euphemia replied, “No. Yes. For I while I did. When I was little. But as I got older I didn’t want to any more.” Her eyes narrowed to slits.
I wasn’t convinced by her story. To me she was saying that she wanted to be famous until her sister beat her to it. I smelt resentment.
Euphemia deftly changed the topic, “I like being a star now!” As she effused, she completed her costume by putting on rounded, lioness ears. She struck a pose. It wasn’t a pose you might see a primate model striking, with mammaries pushed forward and hair flying back. Euphemia looked like a hunter: her tail was rigid, her eyes were unblinking, and her body was low to the ground. She began that high octane purr felids make when they’re getting ready to pounce. Her narrow, glowing eyes mesmerized me; I became her prey.
Euphemia broke the spell with a “raareowr”, followed by an agitated wag of her tail.
While I resumed breathing Euphemia said, “Its time for you to go. I perform in five minutes.”
We did not leave the club: I lingered at the bar, curious to see Euphemia perform, while Mittens scored catnip in a restroom. The Cat Detective left with that look in his eyes. Neither the money nor the health aspect of ‘nip addiction scares me half as much as the craven aspect addicts have when anticipating their next line. No animal should want anything so much.
As I settled down at the dog bar the lights dimmed and the show began. I’m not certain what I expected, but whatever expectations I had were exceeded. Euphemia began her set with a cover of Born to be Wild, which caused a table of Maine coons to spray. Her middle songs, energetic covers of rock classics, perfectly set up her finale – a powerful rendition of It Smells Like Kitten Spirit. I prefer grunge vocals to have more caterwaul and less purr, but there was no denying that the molly could sing.
Euphemia finished her encore song, The Ghost of Tom Cat. While she was acknowledging the audience’s enthusiastic applause, there was a commotion in the back of the club caused by the entrance of Bull and his three-legged body guard.
I leaned over to a Spaniel who was sitting beside me, and asked, “Do you know who that is, not Bull, but the Pyrenees?”
“Sure.” he replied. “That’s Fitch. You know about his back leg? There’s quite a story.”
“Bull cut it off?” I asked in feigned horror.
“Naw. Fitch lost it on the shop floor. But Bull wanted to make some point to this molly named Tulip. You probably know her. The one with the panther ears who just turned up dead in Mont-Royal. That singer is her sister.” He nodded to Euphemia. “Anyhow, Bull starts telling this crazy story about how Fitch severed it to prove his loyalty. Of course Fitch goes along, he’s a beta.” The Spaniel paused to lap up some gravy from a bowl in front of him, and then continued. “You know what amazes me most? Bull did it all to impress a cat. Its too much.”
“What happened to Fitch’s severed hind leg?”
“That’s the funny thing. Bull gave it to Tulip and she refused to take it. She was freaked out. I don’t want to be speciest, but cats, they torture their prey. So why did Tulip get upset that her boyfriend has a creepy way of expressing his love? It doesn’t make sense. If you ask me, there’s some other story in there.”
“What happened to the leg?”
“Another weird thing. I heard from this mouse that Bull kept it in his office, even insisted that Fitch stick to that bullshit story about loyalty. It took months for Bull to let it go. Its sick when people lie like that.”
“The mouse’s story … ?” I prompted.
“Oh yeah, so I hear from this mouse that Tulip and Bull had a fight, and Tulip takes the paw she had previously refused. That happened last Tuesday, just hours before Tulip was found dead. Isn’t that fucked up?” I agreed that it was very fucked up, indeed.
I paid for my serendipitous informant’s gravy, and then withdrew into the shadow of a pillar near both the stage and the fire exit. I saw that Mittens was stalking the other side of the stage. Even from a distance I could see the glow of his catnip charged eyeballs.
As Euphemia was taking yet another bow Bull gallantly leaped in front of her and presented her with flowers that were bound to a long wooden box approximately the length of a Pyrenees’ hind leg.
To my amazement, Mittens sprang onto the stage, grabbed the flowers and wooden box, scooted right past me, and out the fire exit. He got clean away. Security didn’t even pretend to chase him. I looked back to the stage: Euphemia and Bull had also disappeared.
I lowered the brow of my fedora onto my nose, lowered my nose to the ground and slunk out the main entrance unobserved. Security was congregating around the door Mittens had just fled through, and had left all other entrances unattended. Amateurs.
It was but a short scoot to our next destination – Bull’s office at Local 1210 of the United Litterhood of Longshoremen. The office was situated in a squat brick building on the west side of the St. Lawrence River, immediately north of the Port. We were greeted by two receptionists: a fat, scarred old tabby named Muffin, and a pit-bull bitch named Frisson. The tabby greeted Mittens, the pit-bull greeted me.
When satisfied with our stories, the pit-bull pushed a buzzer with her nose. A lanky German shepherd promptly appeared from behind a door flap immediately beyond the reception desk. He sniffed the air with gravitas, and then gestured for us to enter Bull’s office, which we did.
The moment I entered Bull’s office I was approached by Bull’s bodyguard Fitch, who inspected my genitals and anus; I reciprocated in the French style. Fitch was an unusual security choice: most guard dogs are German Shepherds because the breed is fast, strong, smart and mean. Sometimes they are Rotweilers, but that breed can be ornery. A vocal minority insist on Greyhound bodyguards for their speed.
The choice of a hairy, lumbering Pyrenees with a prosthetic left hind leg, was quite unusual, indeed.
“Why are you here, Inspector Barks?” Bull asked. Canine’s have a saying, “As rare as an unscarred alpha”. It refers to the undeniable correlation between alpha-ness and violence. With the exception of a small, nasty mark on his left cheek, Bull had no visible scars at all. He was wearing an expensive woolen vest and jaunty hat. To complete the picture, he had a large unlit cigar dangling from the side of his mouth.
I ignored the criminal dandy. Instead I asked Fitch, “Where’d you lose your hind leg, soldier?”
Fitch looked at me, and then at Bull, with drooping bloodshot eyes. His tail flapped side to side in a slow, agitated fashion. His ears drooped and he made a plaintive whining sound. Bull answered my question, “Fitch lost his left hind leg in an industrial accident. He was gonna go on disability but I gave him this job instead.”
“What kind of accident?” I asked. Bull nodded toward Fitch.
Fitch reluctantly answered my question, “I lost my leg in a boxing plant. Unsafe working conditions. Nothing to do with Tulip at all. Or any rats.”\
Bull choked on his cigar and accidentally singed his whiskers.
Rather than pressing Fitch about this apparent slip, Mittens changed the subject. “Monsieur Bull, tell us about your relationship with Tulip”.
Bull was visibly relieved not to have to explain Fitch’s words. “Tulip and I, we are – were friends …” His voice got caught in his throat. He appeared to be genuinely choked with emotion.
“How did you learn about Tulip’s murder?” I asked sharply.
“A mouse told me”, he replied.
Bull disdainfully flicked his unlit cigar.
Mittens pointedly asked, “I understand that you had business dealings with Tulip”.
“Sure. I still do, in a way. You see some of the guys at the Local have some money I’m responsible for investing. Its an investment club. Yeah. Anyways, we co-own the Kitten Klub with Tulip.”
“How is the investment going?” I asked.
“Not so good.”
“You strike me as a smart dog, Bull”, I barked archly. “Why do you keep your money in a bad investment?”
“The investment is going badly because Tulip is dead. She made us a lot of money.”
“Who inherits her ownership of the club?” I pressed.
Mittens spoke directly to me, “Bull’s investment club is one beneficiary of Tulip’s death, mon ami; Euphemia – her sister – is the other.”
Mittens turned to face Bull. With a little bow he said, “This is a bad time to talk about Tulip’s will.”
The Cat Detective then did something only the most modern cats do: he looked Bull in the eye, “Excusons-nous, Bull, we are indiscreet.”
Our next appointment was with Bull, Tulip’s business partner and possible lover, at his office by the Port. Before meeting with Bull, Mittens insisted we have a drink with a mouse informant at a bar called The Devil’s Liver. I find mice distasteful, and would prefer not to deal with them. They can be just as smart and insightful as any cat or dog, and always more so than the toy breeds of any species. But in the final analysis they are prey. How can you trust prey? Their world is distorted by a lens of constant fear.
The moment we sat down, even before we ordered our drinks, the small rodent spilled out his story: he was anxious both to begin and be gone. “Everyone always asks so I’ll tell you the gossip is true. Tulip did date Bull. I don’t know whether they mated, but judging from those ears of hers I bet they did.”
“What did Bull’s pack think of Tulip?”, Mittens asked. As usual, his voice was insinuating. He couldn’t ask directions to church without sounding like he was implying something dastardly.
The mouse shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. Bull is an alpha dog. His pack is loyal.”
The mouse emphasized the word loyal, and well he should have. There was never dissension within a pack unless there was a competing alpha.
“Any pooch challenge Bull’s authority?” I inquired.
“What about the breakup with Tulip? Was it ugly?”
The mouse shrugged, “They didn’t break up. I mean they did break up, but not the way the Press tells it. They did it for politics. They get – got – along just fine, at least they did until that last time.”
“What do you mean?” Mittens purred.
“Well, I really shouldn’t be telling you this, but the last time I saw Bull and Tulip they were having an argument in Bull’s office. They shouted at each other.”
“Wages? Another molly? I dunno. There was a loud noise; a crash. They both left immediately afterward, in different directions.
“Did they see you?”
“No. But I got a good look at them. I didn’t see what I expected. Not at all.” The mouse was so nervous he was chattering. Mus musculus never like being in the open for long. “Tulip was crying. Not yowling, but real crying, with tears. Can you imagine a cat crying? After they left I sneaked into the office. There was a glass container shattered on the ground in the middle of the floor. That was the odd part.”
“The container held a velvet pillow on which there was an imprint.”
“Yeah. The left hind paw of a right-leading dog.”
“Whaddaya think they teach us in mouse school?”
“We believe you”, I hastily tried to diffuse the situation.
The mouse continued, “You know what else they teach in mouse school? – that the left hind paw of a right-leading dog is the least likely one to kill you. Its the weakest. Just like the lead paw is the strongest.”
“What’s that have to do with this paw print on velvet?” I asked.
“Nothing. I’m just saying”, the mouse replied.
“Did you – borrow – the velvet pillow?” Mittens asked.
“No way. You think us mice want trouble with Bull? I left everything exactly the way it was.”
“Do you know what happened to the pillow? Or the left hind paw that lay on it?” I asked.
“That’s the funny thing. Tulip came back. I hid in a mug. I didn’t see nothing. When she left, the whole mess was gone. She must have taken it with her. Even the hind leg she pretended to hate.”
“When exactly did this happen?”
“Tuesday afternoon. Just before she was murdered.”
How did this mouse know Tulip had been murdered? It was a stupid question. Mice always knew everything, because they were ubiquitous, and they talked. What one mouse knew, every mouse knew.
The timorous rodent continued, “You know what else is weird. After Tulip left, Bull came back. I saw his face. He was afraid. Can you imagine that. The most alpha dog in Montréal was afraid.”
“Anything else?” I asked.
“Naw, I didn’t stick around.”
I thought of the murids1 we’d smelt on the velvet pillow in Tulip’s apartment. I asked, “Did Tulip or Bull have any rat trouble?”
The mouse never answered my question. Someone knocked a glass over and he disappeared.
The sudden disappearance of the nervous mouse annoyed me to the point of anger. When I had composed myself, I wondered why. Upon reflection I realized that it was because the mouse had acted like a mouse. I had an insight into my bias against small rodents at that moment: I hate the way the way they quiver; I hate the way they scatter in the face of danger.
Why are my feelings about them so strong?
Because in my heart I know that I too am prey.
Mittens and I talked as we strolled toward our next destination, Trouble’s lair, a halfway home for ferals in V’Chat, the feline district of old Montréal.1
“Qu’est-ce-que vous pensez?”2 Mittens asked, referring to our recent meeting with Euphemia.
I replied, “I was struck by how unmoved Euphemia was. Her sister, her litter-mate, her twin has just died. I expected more grief”.
“Do not make the mistake my friend of thinking she was not sad enough”, the feline replied. “Certainly there are cats who suffer from remorse, but no one would call remorse ‘cat-like’ behaviour.”
“She had lots of remorse for Trouble”, I noted.
“Bien sûr. A crying cat.” Mittens replied, meditatively. This uncommon image caused both of us to lapse into thought.
The halfway home where Trouble lived had no rooms. Instead, its feline tenants occupied portions of a large open space. Trouble’s territory was on the south-west corner of the building, which meant that when we arrived it was flooded with afternoon light. His core turf was perhaps 100 square metres. He shared a space twice as large with his neighbours.
A pile of middens was strewn across a welcome mat at the point where his personal territory blended into that of the colony.3 Underneath the middens I could see a cartoonish picture of a home emitting a cheerful cloud of white smoke from a slanted chimney.
Mittens made a point of sniffing each fecal lump in turn. He did this with surprising dignity. When done, he hopped to the centre of the entrance and meowed once. My knowledge of the cat language is not nuanced, but I believe he was announcing his presence. He entered Trouble’s territory uninvited; I followed closely behind with my nose close to the ground.
The space before us was large and empty, except for a dark shadow with slits for eyes sitting in a box-like depression in the floor. Although you will periodically read about a mass murderer named Buttercup or a ballerina named Butch, I have always been struck by how most animals become their names. I assume that expectations mould behaviour, [which then alters looks]. One glance at the black cat in front of me left no doubt in my mind that he was trouble, the only question was what kind.
While I took a seat in the corner, Trouble raised himself, arched his back, and then sat upright. Mittens, who was seated in the middle of the room, blinked slowly and methodically. He approached Trouble at an angle, being careful to remain perpendicular to the feral’s line of site. At intervals Mittens repeated an odd sound, like a meow without the m. Sometimes he appended a rraarw, which I assume was because of Trouble’s Latin roots.
Trouble watched these antics with unblinking eyes. He entire body remained still, except for his ears, which tracked Mittens’ movements. This continued for perhaps thirty seconds, and then Trouble began to groom himself as if we did not exist, indeed as if nothing existed but his testicles and his tongue.
There wasn’t much for me to do while the cat introductions lingered on, so my eyes wandered. I noticed a public service announcement poster on the wall behind Trouble. It had a picture of a kitten poking its nose into a blender, the baby cat’s right foot just touching the blender’s purée button, its left paw reaching toward a cluster of razor sharp blades. The tag-line, Curiosity: the innocent killer/Curiosité, la tueur des innocents framed Trouble’s head. I know that it is politically incorrect to laugh at the ridiculous ways kittens kill themselves, but that is not what I’m doing when I say the poster made me smile. It was the word innocent that got to me. I had just met Trouble for the first time, and my mind was made up that he was not only trouble but guilty of murder. The poster reminded me to think twice.
Trouble jumped from the cement box he had been crouching in, up into the nook of one of the low lying metal branches that adorned the ceiling. His new perch had good feline feng shui: he was equidistant from the most important points in the room, Mittens, myself, the fire escape, and the main entrance.
Our introductions finally complete, Mittens spoke, “Bonjour, Monsieur Trouble. My name is Detective Mittens. This is Inspector Barks. We would like to ask you some questions.”
Trouble looked at us with the alien manner that feral – and wild – cats have. He faced us at an angle, with all of his superb senses slyly focused, and then acted like we were nothing more than cardboard cut-outs that could speak.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you that Tulip is dead” Mittens said, with genuine grief in his voice.
“What?! Tulip is dead?”
I remember as a Cadet being quizzed on the cat language’s fifteen core words. The diphthong that Trouble spoke next was certainly an instance of the core word yowl, although he uttered it with an energy I had not encountered in school.
While Trouble mourned, I examined what he had been doing when we arrived. I noticed a piece of paper beside the box where he had been sitting. I sniffed it. It was a letter. On one side was an artistic rendition of Tulip’s name, on the other side was written these words,
“What can ail thee cat-with-claws, alone and darkly stalking? The sedge has withered from the lake, And no birds sing.”
It was the first stanza from the Keat’s poem we had found in Tulip’s apartment. On the facing page was a paw imprint – Trouble’s signature. I was leaning over to investigate it more closely, when Trouble suddenly stopped his histrionics. All cats are like that – they have switches. One moment they’ll be calm, the next moment they’ll be crazy. Two breaths later they’re back to calm. Switch off, switch on, switch off.
Mittens resumed the interrogation. He said, “Monsieur Trouble, when did you last see Tulip?”
“Did anything remarkable happen at this meeting?”
“I called her names.”
“What kind of names?”
“Button kins, dipsy doodle, perky-snips, flouncy-wouncy …”
“I see. What did you do next?”
“I sat in a tree and watched bugs.”
“For how long?”
“I have no idea.”
“Did anyone else see you?”
“No. Not that I know of. Actually, there was a mouse who saw me, but I eviscerated him.”
“Where was Tulip?”
“When you say you called her names, were these friendly names?”
“When I called her names I was aroused. Can you be friendly when aroused?”
“Touché. We found fang marks on Tulip’s neck. Were they yours?”
“Maybe. She liked it rough. And I am a feral.” He shrugged.
“Let me rephrase that” Mittens said politely, “We found your teeth marks near Tulip’s carotid artery and she was dead.”
“I’m rough, not murderous” the feral cat replied, with a distant voice.
“Even when aroused?”
Trouble arched his back. I prepared for the worst.
“There were also dog claw marks.” Mittens spoke an instant before Trouble uncoiled. “From a big dog, like a Rottweiler or German Shepherd.”
“Tulip didn’t have any dog enemies”, Trouble hissed as he settled down.
“The claw that killed her was not necessarily attached to a dog.”
“You mean the murderer used a weapon?” There was disdain in his voice.
Mitten didn’t respond.
“Was someone trying to make it look like a dog killed her?” Trouble asked.
“Peut-être4. All of the wounds were caused by a left back leg of a right facing dog. But who knows? There were traces of rat and mouse at the crime scene. Perhaps Tulip’s was killed by mice?”, Mittens mused.
The thought of a handful of mice fumbling with a half-metre long dog’s claw club while Tulip – the cat with lioness ears – waited to be murdered, was too much for me.
“Tulip was not killed by mice!”, I barked.
“Then by whom was she killed… ?” Trouble asked with a soft purr.
It was a good question.
A dog barked loudly. Trouble leaped to the darkest, most remote part of the room, a mesh of rebar branches just above the fire escape. Watching Trouble’s instantaneous reaction, I reflected on how domestication had attenuated my senses.
The dog barked again.
Trouble was gone.
Our next stop was the classics department at McGill University, where Tulip’s litter-mate and twin Euphemia was an associate professor. Her office was in a quiet corner of one of the University’s older buildings.
We interpreted the indistinct grunt that greeted our knock on Euphemia’s office door as an invitation to enter. The office was long and narrow. Every surface was covered in books and manuscripts. Even the telephone tucked away in the corner behind the door was covered in papers. Illumination was provided by a low wattage fluorescent bulb, which gave the scene a damp, cold aspect.
I was surprised when a tabby – who I hadn’t noticed because he was as greasy and grey as the books that lined the walls – addressed us. “You must be looking for Euphemia.” The academic spoke with a croaking, tired voice, “She’s expecting you.” I noted disapprovingly that the academic’s collar was dusted with catnip.
We were spared having to socialize further by the appearance of Euphemia, who poked first her ears and then her head, body and tail through the doorway. Once through, she said, “Inspector Barks and Detective Mittens. I trust you have not been waiting long?” She slunk into the office, and sat in a corner, equi-distant from us both. Euphemia was not one of those fashionable cats who has adopted a primate style of dress, so it is more accurate to say that she was adorned, not clothed. She wore a modest kerchief around her head, she had three metal studs in her right ear, and her whiskers were dyed. Her most prominent adornment was her ankle bracelets, to which were attached tiny ceramic bells. These bells rang as she moved – useless if hunting birds, but no doubt quite effective at alluring toms.
Because my readers will range from mice to snow leopards, I hesitate to describe her eyes. If a small rodent encountered the glow of those eyes in a field at night, it might think “here is the Death Goddess”. Through those same eyes a dog might peer into the soul of a worthy adversary. But for a feline those eyes must have been special indeed, for they captured all of the ambiguities of cats: presence and distance, engagement and disengagement, the sense of being outside of time and in the moment, and most vexing of all: the calmness of the carnivore.
I have never inquired about Mittens’ sexual habits, but because of his soft, petulant manner I assumed he was attracted to hard, young toms, and was certainly a bottom. I was therefore surprised to see his eyes light up like supernovas as he greeted Euphemia with a little bow.
Following Mittens’ suggestion, we decided to relocate to a café in Outrement. We scampered instead of taking a cab. Mittens went ahead with Euphemia. I dawdled behind reading copies of La Derrière and The Gazebo, the city’s largest circulation dailies. The Gazebo ran an old story about the Nicaraguan kitten Tulip had just adopted. La Derrière appeared to be on our trail: according to a story on the back page of the front section, Tulip had missed a performance last night. The writer speculated as to whether she was the victim in yesterday’s murder. The story cited a source within the Police department who would “reveal all” today.
I put away the papers. When I looked up I saw that Euphemia was now beside me. She leaned so close to me that I could smell every molecule on her pearl white mane.
“You’re wearing jaguar musk?”, I commented.
She paused for just a moment before replying, “Leopard. But all pantherines smell the same.”
I prodded, “Did Tulip use that perfume?” .
Euphemia hesitated before she replied, “Yes. The scent is called Serengeti.”
Mittens had slowed his pace so that he could join us. He asked, “Who wore this perfume first, you or your sister?”
The question flustered Euphemia, as if she sensed that it could incriminate her, but she did not know how. She replied, “Tulip discovered it. But we’ve both been wearing it for years.” With these words she raced ahead, her head low to the ground.
Moments later we arrived at our destination, the Café Gauche. The joint had retro stylings: posters of primate females with veils, gloves, and that sort of thing. Euphemia fit right in with the hip, bohemian crowd. Mittens and I did not, but no one was fussed.
We settled onto a divan near a window. I let Mittens take the conversational lead: after all, both he and Euphemia were felines. I expected the Cat Detective to begin with questions relating to Tulip. Instead he said, in a gracious but insinuating way, “Tell us about Tulip’s tom-friend, Trouble.”
Euphemia groomed her paws before replying. The less cats hurry, the more they care, I thought. Tulip’s sister finally spoke, “Trouble was feral from birth. I don’t say that he was born wild because he wasn’t – he was born indoors, at dawn, to a domesticated mother. However, he became feral, along with his mother and five litter-mates when he was one day old, and did not sleep indoors again until he was an adult.
“I see.” Mittens groomed his whiskers. Euphemia’s tailed flopped erratically.
I jumped in with a question for Euphemia, “Your family is pure bred. Did anyone object to your sister dating a mutt like Trouble?”
“If they did, they didn’t say anything about it.”, Euphemia replied. “My family is very liberal: we shun breedism. At least we make a point of acting that way.” She shrugged and purred softly.
“What about your Sire and Dam?”, I pressed.
“My Dam hates everyone Tulip dates … dated. But she likes Trouble more than Bull.”
“… and your Sire?”, I prodded.
“Dad abandoned us when we were kittens.”
“I’m sorry to hear that”, I said. Her words made me think of the last time I’d seen my own father. He was eating a used tissue on the train tracks near the Junction, in Toronto.1
Euphemia shrugged again.
Mittens jumped into the conversation, “What about Bull?”
“Tulip and Bull were only ever about their nightclub. The dog-cat mating stuff, that was just hype.”
“Perhaps Bull and Tulip were fighting over the nightclub?” Mittens asked.
“Maybe. But Bull is an alpha. Alpha dogs don’t kill over things like night clubs. With them its always about bitches and hierarchy.”
Although I found Euphemia’s ennui affected, I had to agree with her words.
“What did Tulip think about Trouble?” Mittens asked.
“She loved him. Even …” Euphemia was so choked up she had to stop speaking.
“Tulip loved Trouble even though he was feral?” Mittens prompted, gently.
Euphemia burst out. “Tulip thought she could domesticate him!” Before my amazed eyes, Euphemia began to weep because of her sister’s feral boy-friend. It made no sense. Cats don’t weep.
We waited for Euphemia to calm down, which she did in a feline way: her tears quickly gave way to languorous fidgeting. First she circled her cushion. She sat down and groomed her right paw, and then shifted her hips in order to better groom her left paw. One dozen preens later, she reconnected.
Mittens immediately resumed his questioning, “Euphemia, what do you think of Trouble? Do you want to domesticate him?”
I – and most of my canine colleagues – find Mittens intolerably rude, but it is a fact that time and again his manners will be sincerely praised by felines. However, this time cat and dog opinion were in accord: Euphemia plowed through the pillows that decorated the space between them and landed on Mittens. Fur flew as they did a half roll, which ended with Mittens on his back and Euphemia on his stomach; her claws were sunk deep into his fur, and her fangs were at his throat. Euphemia held this pose for one breath, and then compulsively licked Mittens’ head a half dozen times before retreating. I had not yet processed what I had just seen when they were seated again, grooming themselves as if nothing had happened.
It was clear that our meeting was over. After a few minutes of casual grooming Mittens rose and slunk over to Euphemia. They rubbed muzzles in farewell – a long, languorous rub, even by cat standards. The air was charged with the smells of attraction and anger. No more words were spoken. Not even a purr.
Although Tulip’s career as an entertainer may have fallen on tough times her bank account – judging from the opulence of her Mont-Royal nest – had not. She lived in a three story brick scamper-up that had it all, including stalking grounds, an aviary, and rat warren.
I was pleased to see that Tulip’s nest did not look like a crime scene at all. There was no bright yellow tape, no crowds of reporters. Since the forensics team left, there was barely a police presence at all – just one fierce looking Rottweiler, whose primary job was to keep news hounds and curious cats away.
The murder had occurred in the indoor stalking grounds, where Tulip – and her many guests – would hunt small animals for snacks and sport. A chalk mark outlined the position of Tulip’s body. She had died in a fetal position. In the midst of her oversize furniture the chalk outline looked small, like that of a kitten. This made me think of my own litter of pups back home in Willowdale.1
We both began to sniff.
I was investigating an area of floor unexpectedly rich in smells when I had the good fortune to discover a cleverly disguised trapdoor, which opened to reveal a cement box nest – the kind you found in every fashionable cat’s house during the 1970s. The floor of the nest was covered by a velvet pillow, on which there was an imprint of the ear of a dog.
In the middle of the pillow was a card with an inscription written in gold. It read, “Tulip, here is a symbol of how my entire pack will protect you.”
I sniffed. “Look here” I said, pointing my muzzle toward a tiny hair on the card. “A piece of a mouse’s tail.”
Mittens was beside me in an instant. He ignored the mouse tail, but sniffed the card thoroughly, and then said, “Barks, I smell a rat.”
Which was a point I fastidiously put in the Cat Detectives column. A bit of mouse at a crime scene was the antithesis of evidence. Mice always get to a crime scene first, and are almost never perps. Ratus ratus was another matter, entirely.
“Do you recognize this rat?” I asked.
Mittens never answered my question. At that moment a gust of wind triggered our next discovery – a card floated out of an open book onto the floor. Mittens carefully picked up the card by the edges. On it several sentences had been written by a bold cat’s paw. It was a copy of a letter Tulip had sent to her litter-mate and twin, Euphemia.
Mittens’ read in a slightly high-pitched, theatrical voice,
Dearest sister Euphemia,
Today I couldn’t stand one more second of Trouble’s damned feral inscrutability. I asked him what he was really thinking. He told me, in a flat voice – no affect at all, not even a purr – that he hates La Belle Dam but he can’t help himself. “Do you mean me?” I implored him. “You know what I mean” he said as he leaped out of the fire escape. I haven’t seen him since. I don’t know what I’d do without him. But I’m loosing him. I can tell from his scent, and unfocussed ears. I’m loosing him.
What can I do?
xx oo Tulip
Mittens’ concluded his oratory with a little bow.
“Are there other notes?” I asked.
“There are lots of notes down at the station. Tulip was quite a writer. But do you mean, was there anything incriminating? Non. Only this. Mais cela, c’est très intéressante, n’est-ce pas?”2
“It is interesting indeed”, I replied. “Let us inspect the book the note fell out of.” I hopped over to the small leather bound volume. It opened to a poem called La Belle Chat Sans Merci.3
I scanned the first few stanzas, and stopped at the fourth. In the left margin the words “Tulip” and “La Belle Chat” were written with a kittenish paw.
I flipped to the first page of the book where I found the following dedication, “To my cat-bitch twin sister on my birthday.
We have stereotypes about the love litter-mates and twins have for each other. Like many generalizations, the stereotype is both true and false simultaneously. I could see in the note Tulip had written Euphemia that the two sisters had a deep, abiding bond. They must have shared all of their experiences with each other. But it took scant effort to imagine that love erupting into a most vicious cat-fight.
I showed Mittens the book. He read the dedication and said, “We have another suspect.”
“Indeed”, I replied.
“Eleanor, I’m sad that we have to meet again on such a sad occasion.” Marta looked briefly upward – towards heaven, no doubt – and then gestured languidly. “How are you?”
“And your husband? Oh, what is his name…”
“He’s fine as well. He sends his regrets. He still can’t move very well after the skiing accident.”
Marta moved closer, too close. Somehow she managed to completely envelop the space around her even though she was small and slight. “You look a little rounder than the last time I saw you. Are you…?”
“Marta!” Despite herself, she blushed.
“You’re getting old, you know. To think that your father passed away without seeing a child from his youngest daughter.”
“I – I really must go.” She abruptly pulled her simple black skirt towards her and then joined the crowd of people moving towards the church. For the past two days she had managed to contain much of her emotion. Papa’s death had come as no surprise to anyone and thankfully had been quick and dignified. Despite this, she felt considerable grief and beneath that an amorphous feeling, perhaps fear, that took little provocation to bring to the surface. Marta, of course, provoked her with dispatch.
With a brief glance over the crowd she spotted her brothers and began to move towards them. They huddled together smoking at the base of the stone stairs that led into the tidy Episcopal Church. Maybe she was wrong to avoid her grief. But she did not deny death’s inevitability: she defined her life with death in mind. Of all the members of the family she was certainly the one most focused on enjoying her life. Peter and Arianna saw no more of life than their offices and the inside of their commuter cars. Cameron, though he indulged his emotions was not at peace with them.
Her two brothers separated slightly and drew her into their circle.
“How are you doing Ellie?” Cameron hugged her affectionately and then slide his trademark silver flask into the palm of her right hand. She looked for signs that he had been on a bender and saw none. Though he had probably slept in his clothes and his eyes were slightly red, he was quite composed, his hands were steady and his enunciation was good. She felt relieved. Cameron was such a loose cannon. You never knew what would set him off and how dramatically he would act. Everyone was worried that he would be a spectacle during the eulogy. With a quick, practised gesture she took a large gulp of scotch, put her arm around his waist and returned the flask to his right pocket.
“Come here, hold me.” Peter grasped her unsteadily and then fell towards her in an extremely sloppy hug. Despite herself, she pulled slightly away. The three of them swayed unsteadily for a moment and then Eleanor gently extracted herself from her brothers. So Peter was the one to watch out for. He had always been such a source of stability. In fact his sobriety and pragmatism frequently annoyed her. She put her arm through Peter’s and rather firmly escorted him up the stairs into the church.
The dark wood and stone interior of the church was formal, cold and not very comforting. This did not bother her. Death was not a time for soft comforts. She did not want any form of ministration to distract from her grief. She and her brothers walked towards their seat in the front pew of the church and sat down between their vigorously weeping maiden aunts and their uncharacteristically quiet young niece Leah. The histrionics of the aunts at first annoyed and then unsettled Eleanor. The aunts had the deepest faith of her relatives. They attended mass daily and prayed for their family’s wide array of sins. This faith seemed no support to them now. But then again how could any faith alter the undeniable fact of their loss? As the service began the aunts gradually settled down, comforted by ritual.
After a brief, though tedious, introduction by the minister Cameron rose to deliver his eulogy. He ascended the pulpit with sombre dignity. It was almost surprising to see such a militant atheist as he act so reverentially in a church. He was like some form of anti-priest about to give an atheist’s sermon. Eleanor remembered how he had liked to play priest when he was much younger and much more impressionable. She smiled at the memory. Perhaps it was true that we hold our greatest hatred for what we despise in ourselves. This thought caused her to worry again. She knew that Cameron’s grief was quite great. This eulogy was very important to her and she feared that he would blow it. A flash of anger coursed through her at the thought of her brother engaging in a drunken rave. She fought it down. She knew that Cameron was fine. In fact she suspected, or at least hoped, that he was in good form. He cleared his throat and began.
I read recently in a newspaper about two towns in Nova Scotia which neighbour each other. The first town was, I believe, called Altruism. The good citizens of Altruism were concerned about unfortunate members of their community, the sick and afflicted. So they established a generous social welfare system. The citizens of the neighbouring town, Parsimony I think it was called, also cared about the disadvantaged, but they had other concerns as well. Because they fretted about freeloaders and high taxes, Parsimony’s welfare system was not quite as good as that in Altruism. The result was that all the sick and unemployed people in Parsimony moved to Altruism.
For the first time this week Eleanor felt at peace. Cameron was up to some mischief. She was relieved that his delivery was sly and not sarcastic. Certainly listening to Cameron’s parable thus far was better than listening to some doddering stranger talk platitudes. He continued.
Suddenly, the two towns became polarised. Altruism, which started off being only slightly more generous than Parsimony was forced to become very generous. This annoyed many of the citizens of Altruism, who like their cousins in Parsimony were also concerned about high taxes. They experienced resentment because they were being forced to be good, and they couldn’t do anything about it because no one would step forward and openly advocate being less generous to the poor. In contrast, the citizens of Parsimony ended up being less good than they intended. Rather than helping the poor less, they ended up not helping the poor at all. This disturbed many of the citizens of Parsimony because they didn’t intend to be bad, they merely wanted to economise. But again, no one could do anything about it because no one would step forward to support raising taxes.
Eleanor looked around the church at various generations of friends and relatives. Attention levels seemed to correspond with age. The children were very restless and bored. At the beginning of the service they were certainly on good behaviour because they sensed that their parents were upset. However, the intensity of their parents’ emotions could not muzzle the children’s immediate needs for very long. Beside her nieces and nephews sat her older cousins who were attentive but not much less restless than their children. The most attentive people, she noticed, were those closest to death themselves. She wondered how much of their weeping was for their lost friend and how much was for themselves. Perhaps Papa was one of their dwindling circle of companions and they mourned their increasing loneliness; or perhaps they cried out of fear of their own impending death. These thoughts were not cynical. It struck her as sensible that people should mourn this way. Indeed, she was disturbed by those who did otherwise.
A child started screaming out of boredom and an embarrassed mother hustled her out of the church. “Better get to the point Cameron”, she thought.
Just as the people of Altruism and Parsimony were forced to be better and worse than they intended, so too are most people directed on the paths of good and evil by circumstances which distort and exaggerate their moral inclinations. Sometimes being good is easy, because it corresponds with our self-interest, and sometimes it is difficult, because the entire weight of the world opposes it.
Most of us play the moral odds, dramatising our virtues and disguising our vices. My father was unique among the people that I have met because he didn’t play these odds. He never deliberated and chose to be good. He just was good. For this we were very lucky children. Though as a family we suffered losses and experienced some deprivation, we always had his guidance, support and love. To his memory we can look for an example, and for his life we can give thanks.
Cameron voice’s wavered as he finished the last words of his eulogy. He paused briefly to collect himself and then walked, head bowed, off the altar and sat down. The priest, in a great show of dignity then rose and continued with the service.
As the priest began to talk a quiet voice whispered into her ear. “Aunt Eleanor. Aunt Eleanor.” Her youngest cousin Leah lightly but firmly tugged at the sleeve of her dress, excited, or rather distraught by some thought. “Aunt Eleanor”, she whispered, “they’re going to put grandpa in the ground aren’t they?”
“Yes they are.” Leah moved slightly closer to Eleanor, seeking comfort. Eleanor put her arm around Leah, seeking comfort herself.
“I’m never going to see grandpa again.” she stated simply.
With those words Eleanor’s calm was shattered. A feeling of sadness and rage welled up within her. She wanted her father back now. Her feelings were naive and pointless. Nevertheless they completely possessed her. The feelings resonated within her and then were replaced by one enormous feeling of emptiness. Her grief didn’t matter. Papa was not coming back. Shaken by these intense emotions she sat quietly weeping through the rest of the service until people rose and began to leave.
As they walked out of the church to the car Eleanor watched little Leah’s tentative efforts to understand the actions of the adults around her. For this moment roles were reversed. So often Leah would be the one raging about loss and powerlessness, usually in the context of an early bedtime or restricted access to TV. Now she watched the adults around her adapt to their own feelings of loss, denial and powerlessness. Leah timidly held onto the skirt of Eleanor’s dress and then grabbed her hand. Eleanor looked down at her. What was Leah learning from the actions of her aunts and uncles? Was this just a lesson in social graces? Was she learning to live her life in the shadow of death, or merely to be careful with people who swayed and stank of alcohol?
“Aunt El, I miss Grandpa and want him back”.
“So do I. So do I.” As the car pulled out of the church parking lot Eleanor had the feeling that it was wrong merely to let life go on. Leah’s loss and her loss were both real. A good man who brought joy to the world was gone. Certainly his time had come, yet to deny her feelings of remorse felt wrong, was wrong.
They shortly arrived at the family house for the wake. The house, as always, looked small and drab compared with the vivid memories of childhood. Thankfully the feelings of shame that characterised the visits of early adulthood had long since subsided. Though the house was in ill repair and was definitely in a poorer section of town it represented a life from which Eleanor had successfully escaped. Now she could view it calmly as one of many important influences on her. In fact, as she moved among the hallways and rooms a feeling of reflective nostalgia infused her.
Her own room was nearly untouched from the time she left home for the last time to go to college. The significance of this hit her for the first time. Clearly Papa had missed her more than she had realised. They had always had an awkward relationship. Peter and Arianna had led lives that Papa approved of, and they had remained in constant contact. Cameron he rarely saw or talked to. She was somewhere in between. Papa had never fully understood her, nor she him. For him, life was a series of inevitable sacrifices. She often accused him of sacrificing even when not necessary. Of course, her life had required so few sacrifices. Because of her stable character and her supportive family and friends, she had avoided being seriously hindered by the pratfalls that mar all lives.
She walked absently into her room. Try as she might she could not think of it as anything but a museum. She methodically began examining the artefacts of her life. The room was filled with Austrian symphonies, books on German philosophy, French poetry, the trappings of aristocratic European culture that had fascinated her during her early adolescence. Here and there pieces of African and Asian culture hinted at the direction that her interests would take during her first decade away from home.
From habit she opened the drawer of her dresser and withdrew the little safe that contained her personal tokens, diaries, letters and photographs. “How Papa raged at that little safe”, she thought. It seemed so trivial, but because it defined in material terms a part of her that was no longer dependent upon him it had marked an important passage in her life. She sat down on her trundle bed and idly began to sift through her most treasured effects.
She slipped easily into the past. Death is a time of completion, a time for recollection and summation. Methodically she went through stacks of pictures and notes. At one time many of these things would have embarrassed her. She was prone to fads which she embraced with enthusiasm one day and abandoned with derision the next. Today she felt no shame at all. These artefacts had been, and still were a part of her.
She picked up a folder of photographs and glanced idly through it, beginning with the last page and moving backwards towards the first. One page in particular caught her eye. It contained pictures from a wilderness retreat she had taken with a group of friends from university. They had camped in a meadow on the wide flood plain of a river. She had a vivid memory of hiking after midnight through fields of flowers, giggling, half drunk, half clothed, going to the river to swim. A mist had formed where the warm air of the river valley met pockets of cold air from beyond. The light from the full moon shone strongly but unsteadily through this damp air. The fragrant mist and the slight sting of flowers brushing against her skin had made her feel very primal, like a participant in a rite of spring or a bacchanal.
Eleanor removed the photograph and noted the names and the date written on the back. She turned the picture over and looked at it again. She felt disturbed. Something about it caused dissonance. There were no sad memories attached to the trip. She recalled her friends’ names and smiled at the positive feelings they evoked. “What is wrong with this picture?” she thought again. Then she realised that this was the last time she had ever spent with any of the people in the photograph. During the last year of college she had seen them less and less and then this last time and no more. For the second time that day a feeling of loss surged through her.
Eventually all the threads of life end. We mark many of these endings but miss far more: life is full of little endings that individually or cumulatively can far outstrip the impact of a sudden, though foreseen death. A childhood friend who one day moved away never to be seen again. A phone-call never returned. A letter never opened. An impact never felt. Non-events that mark the stages of life so quietly and so conclusively.
“Auntie El…” Leah’s timid, demanding voice disturbed her reverie. “Ariana says you have to come down now.” Eleanor carefully put the picture back, then put the folder away. She then took Leah’s hand and returned with her to the wake.
My Last Adventure is the final book in the Shively series. In this story Shively is manipulated by a Russian spy into using COVID money to build a private prison.
The story is set during the the first months of COVID (March – June 2020) but frequently references Daniel Defoe’s account of an 18th Century plague in London.
“What is that?” Elena – a spokes-model for Consolidated Gulags – snatches my phone and starts to read. She is covered in shadows except for her ruby red lips, which catch the dim bedroom light as she speaks.
We continued in these Hopes for a few Days, but it was but for a few; for the Peoples were no more to be deceived thus; they searcht the Houses, and found that the Plague was really spread every way, and that many died of it every Day: So that now all our Extenuations abated, and it was no more to be concealed, nay it quickly appeared that the Infection had spread it self beyond all Hopes of Abatement.
She sits down on the edge of my bed, leans over me and says, “Washington Post, right?”
“Its about another plague, in London”, I reply hesitantly. Elena plays rough so I’m careful not to make myself a target.
“Yah ,” she replies, “They’ve got the plague bad in England. Maybe I’m thinking of Italy but whatever: its just time if I’m wrong. But why did you grunt like this story means something? This is the same news we’ve been reading since March.”
“That’s my point. There’s nothing new. This article was written by Daniel Defoe 300 years ago about a plague in London. Doesn’t London then sound like New York now?”
“America is back in history again. We had forgotten that war, famine, pestilence and plague are real. “
“You say such stupid things James Shively!” Elena presses her hands onto my shoulders while she straddles me. Her blue eyes are cold and focused. “You’ve read War and Peace?”
“Uh sure”, I reply carefully. My words are a bit thin because the pressure on my shoulders is intense. Though she has a build somewhere between waif and wood nymph, Elena is surprisingly strong. “I’ve read the war bits and the party chapters. I skimmed the rest.”
“Good.” Elena is now so close to me I can smell tobacco on her breath. She continues, “My point is about the Battle of Borodino. Did Russia leave history when that massacre was turned into a book? Of course not.” She shoves hard on my shoulders. I think of resisting her, but I’m pinned. She continues, “So you think America left history when its politics moved to television? Was America out of history when Nixon carpet-bombed Cambodia or George Bush carpet-bombed Iraq?”
“Uh”, I reply tentatively. I can’t say more because I can barely breathe. But I get her point.
She continues, “America was certainly in everyone else’s history when Reagan and Bush and Clinton were presidents.”
She releases my shoulders and takes a drag on her Juul.
“Can you even talk about when in your weird theory, James Shively?”
She takes another drag, exhales and then presses her face close to mine as she intones with her breathy alto voice, “Borodino, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia, Ukraine. Same people. Same violence. Same. Fucking. Thing.”
I recount this experience dispassionately, but dispassion is the furthest thing from my mind as Elena kisses me with aggressive, passionless lips.
To my surprise, her mood suddenly lightens. She releases her pressure on me and whispers, “Your fingers are so beautiful. I have a special fantasy about them.” Another inhale on her Juul. “Do you want to know my fantasy?” She delicately kisses each digit of my right hand. “My special fantasy is to see your sexy fingers sign a contract for a large, new prison. Isn’t that hot?” She places her right hand on my crotch and begins to rub my manhood slowly, “It will be our prison. Tell me you share my dream, James Schuyler Hamilton Shively the Third.” She retracts her hand.
As someone who has gotten into serious trouble for thinking with my penis, my situation is problematic. You may scoff and say, “I don’t see any problem here. Lie and have sex with her. What’s the big deal? Men do it all the time.” If I had come from a less faux-feudalistic family, I might well have taken this proposed tack and said, “Elena, I’ll build us the biggest prison” and later renege on my promise. Our President does that all the time and its worked swell for him. But, alas, I am a Shively and though nothing binds Shivelys to truth, our word is our bond.
Two very long seconds later I say, “Elena, I’ll get you that prison built”.
“Not you, us“, she replies. The pressure on my wrists relents. She glides over my awaiting, craving body.
And thus I receive my one and only reward for this god-forsaken project.
I awake with a splitting headache not explained by last night’s drinking. Perhaps Elena drugged me. But just a bit. That’s definitely her style. Ruthless, but in a minimalist way. I stumble out of bed. Movement makes my hangover worse.
My phone buzzes. I remember last night’s promise and sigh, “Oh fuck” as I pick up the phone.
My eyes are dry. It takes a moment to read the text, “Meet me at the K-Lounge for breakfast! I have your security badge and wallet.” Elena punctuates her text with a viking emoticon.
A typical Elena communication. Concise, clear and yet perfectly fucked up. She has stolen my wallet, compromised national security by stealing my id badge, used my money for cab fare and now wants to meet for breakfast in a lounge? This is all wrong. She is the lobbyist and I am the lobbied. This part of the process isn’t supposed to cost me time or money. Or cause grief.
My phone buzzes again with a notification. I look at it and grimace. Someone has included me in a Republican intern email group and I keep getting pictures of lobbyists in compromising situations. I mark the email as spam and sit down on my bed to gather my wits. That doesn’t work so I open the Defoe Diary for guidance, like I used to do with the I Ching in college. The first paragraph I read is inauspicious:
The usual Number of Burials in a Week, in the Parishes of St. Giles’s in the Fields, and St. Andrew’s Holborn, were from 12 to 17 or 19 each few more or less; but from the Time that the Plague first began in St. Gile’s Parish, it was observ’d, that the ordinary Burials encreased in Number considerably. … The last Bill was really frightful, being a higher Number than had ever been known to have been buried in one Week.
Thoughts of burial motivate me to shower and leave.
The walk to the K Street Lounge is pleasant. The April air is crisp and the sky is vivid cyan. Georgetown is clean, prosperous and bustling. American politics and culture may be polarized but I think that Republicans, Democrats and independents alike will concede that America makes the most sense if you’re rich. This morning the only off-putting element is the unexpected number of people wearing masks. The masks for the most part are cheery – or sports-themed – but strike me as sinister. Although there are few COVID cases in DC, the news out of New York is alarming.
Like me, everyone is looking at their phones. There are only 2 facial expressions, quizzical and smiling. Its like the whole world is looking for either directions or support.
The entrance to K-Lounge is guarded by a bouncer. He asks for my name. l present him with my driver’s license, which he checks against a list on his clipboard. The list-checking strikes me as not so much out of context as out of time. It is 8:15 a.m. not 1 a.m. He grunts and unchains the velvet rope.
The decor of the lounge is strip-club modern, which is unsettling from the perspectives of both aesthetics and dining. My Oxfords, in normal times quiet shoes, clack sharply against the earth-toned tiled floor. The sound echoes off of the walls, which are covered in brown mottled mirrors and faux-wood paneling. I can’t name the faux-tree, probably mahogany. The stains on the velvet couches are bio-luminescent.
Elena has already arrived. She is seated at the table beside a large, dangerous looking man who has a bald head and a broadly striped shirt. The stripes turn his impressive musculature into a topographical map. It is a good environment for Elena: her skin is positively radiant in ultra-violet light, her eyes have deepened two shades of blue and her lips glow an alluring purple-red. Tufts of her shortly cropped copper-colored hair have become blonde, like so many white shadows. She ignores my approach by taking a long draw on her Juul. When I reach the table she looks up, tilts her head slightly to the left and smiles coquettishly.
As usual, her smile makes me fleetingly feel like I’ve stepped through a looking-glass into Instagram.
Elena makes introductions as I take my seat beside her. “Bruno meet James Shively”. Elena nods at the broad shouldered man beside her. I proffer my hand. He refuses to shake it, nodding his head and muttering “COVID”. Despite his expensive clothes he has a slightly tone-deaf sense of cool: his suit and shirt have a Studio 54 sheen, and the air around him is infused with the smell of cologne. I wonder if he, like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, overcompensates for his style deficiencies with a sadistic devotion to his work?
Bruno speaks first, smiling. He says, “So I’ve finally met the infamous James Schuyler Hamilton Shively Quattro. Imagine that”. There’s a hint of Jacobin terror in his eyes.
“I’m the third, not the fourth.”
Elena adds, “Yep. Only two other Shivelys before him.”
Bruno’s smile broadens. This relaxes me a bit. At least he has something resembling a sense of humor even if he is laughing at me. Elena responds to his amusement with a terse, sweet smile of her own.
Sweet is her weakest look.
Bruno asks, “Do the Shivelys have a coat of arms?”
His question is music to my ears. The Shively Coat of Arms is one of the few things I can discuss with unrivaled authority. “Indeed we do”, I reply heartily. “Its divided into 4 quadrants. The upper right contains a Beaver Rampant against a field of ….”
“I don’t give a shit about rampant beavers”. Bruno is not smiling.
“He’s a Communist”, Elena interjects nodding at her companion as if this somehow bridges the conversational gap that has opened between us. And it kind of does, if your concept of Communist includes beefy industrial workers who brawl with Nazis.
Bruno nods in agreement. “Da. Old-school Communist.”
I still don’t quite understand his ambivalence toward coats of arms. If he’s interested in them, why isn’t he interested in them? I say, “Why did you ask about my family’s coat of arms?”
Elena answers for him, “Bruno collects the coats of arms of his targets … I mean clients … I mean …”
“I collect coats of arms like trophies.” Bruno interrupts. “Here, look.” He hands me his phone, which displays a picture of the Schlemielpennick Coat of Arms and then begins to scroll. Its like a coats of arms guest list of a wedding I attended in Bali at the end of my senior year in college.
Although I desperately want to know the story behind each “trophy” – we’re talking about my friends, after all – I feel that my conversational time would be better spent mollifying him. I ask, “So what is a Communist doing working for Elena?” The question makes me feel like Joe McCarthy playing “Whats My Line?”
Elena replies for him, “Bruno is my production assistant”. He nods grimly, in agreement and says, “Da. Production assistant. Elena says you promised to build a prison for Consolidated Gulags. I’m here to make sure that happens.”
I can think of nothing to say in reply. I mean nothing worth saying. We Shivelys are pretty good at spouting nonsense, but now doesn’t seem like a good time for that.
Bruno leans toward me and speaks. He looms so large he casts me in shadow. “Mr. Shively, I want you to know this prison means a lot to Elena.”
“Uh, yeah”, I reply.
Elena says spritely, “I’ll let you two get to know each other better. I’ll get breakfast”. She rises and dusts herself. The lounge is not particularly dusty, but the dust is visible in the ultra-violet light as it falls off her body. She looks like a punk Tinker Bell.
It takes Bruno and me a moment to find our conversational sea-legs. I speak once I realize he will never initiate conversation.
“Where are you from Bruno?”
“Gdansk. But I live in Moscow. My family moved there when Lech Walesa won. My family are real Communists.” He scoffs theatrically as he speaks the Polish laborer organizer’s name. He sounds like a Republican talking about unions.
It turns out that Bruno comes from a venerable line of Bavarian, Polish and Russian Communists. The same ones who had gun fights with Nazis in the streets of Munich and Berlin, and later killed Trotsky with an ice-pick in Mexico.
“What brings you to America, Bruno?”
“I did a contract for Defrauded Guaranteed.”
“I see”, I reply uncertain whether he is talking about a felony or an organization.
He notices my uncertainty. “Its a firm based in Palm Beach. Near the President’s … “
He smiles. His mouth glints when he does. His incisors are made of silver, with tasteful gold caps.
I take a deep breath and say what’s on my mind, “What do you want from me, Bruno?”
“From you, James Shively, I want nothing. This is about what she wants” he nods at Elena who is returning from the kitchen with our breakfast, “I’m here to break … how you say …”
… bodies … ? I think
“Log-jams” he continues. “I like that phrase. Log jams. It reminds me of forestry. My grandfather was a forester during his time in Krasnoyarsk. He was later rehabilitated.”
Although I am curious to find out how a Communist views the Russian gulag, I ask, “Do you have many other clients?”
“Not right now. Just Elena. She’s a big account. Keeps me very busy.”
I wonder what he means by busy, but do not ask because I more or less know and don’t want to. Which of course makes me wonder how he will kill me should I fail to deliver on this prison. I am certain that my death won’t be abstract, from some rare isotope or silenced gun. It will be physical. Very physical. Perhaps he will rip my larynx out with his bare hands.
Bruno notices my consternation. “I don’t have anything against you, Shively. Its nothing personal.”
He taps his right forefinger on the table top and says, “Bon appétit!”. Elena arrives with our food. She places a tray of breakfast sandwiches on the table, and takes her seat.
If you’re like me you may have wondered why strip clubs never make the Michelin Guide. I know the answer to this question: its the quality of the food they serve. I help myself to a bread-roll stuffed with scrambled eggs, and a slab of meat that looks like an extra in an Alien movie The toast makes me think of a hobo Sponge Bob torched on Skid Row.
Bruno devours his breakfast sandwich in three bites.
I listlessly pick at mine wondering where to begin. Or whether.
Elena doesn’t even pretend to eat her fruit bowl. Its covered in a thick sugar sauce which she uses as mortar for a citrus castle. She should have been an architect, not a spy.
“A toast! ” Elena leaps to her feet, knocking a water glass over as she does so. “To our prison!” Bruno stands up, as if stretching. I slowly rise, feeling much older than my 35 years.
We clink coffee cups. Elena and Bruno drain theirs and toss them onto the floor with the kind of vigor I’d discuss with my therapist. I have a small sip and then place my cup gently down. It tastes like it was brewed with Flint water.
Note: The rest of this story is receiving its final edit and will be published shortly. If you are a friend with the password, click here.