Kill All Cats

Here is a sample chapter from my novel published June 6th (officially).

Chapter 1

I jerked open my front door, not caring if the Grim Reaper or a Girl Scout had interrupted my sleep with insistent knocking. Sunshine flooded my foyer, and I raised my arm to shield my eyes.

“What?” My gruff voice sounded like it should for a man woken from a deep sleep after having worked all night.

Two men in black suits and white shirts shimmered like mirages before me in the sweltering midday heat. The tall one, fortyish, gaunt with a thin mustache above pursed lips, wore expensive-looking sunglasses. A Windsor knot and shiny clip held his black tie in place. With a slight dip of his head, he scanned my attire: white boxers and a gray t-shirt.

The shorter man’s fat face wore a sweaty sheen. His dark tie, with a stain shaped like New Jersey, hung loosely around his thick neck. He flashed his badge too fast for me to read and then pocketed it. He smelled of mold. “I’m Detective William Porter from the Apex PD. This is my partner, Detective Joshua Moore. Are you Ron Black?”

A work issue? No. They’re local cops. My stomach muscles tightened—they’d uncovered my past. The urge to slam shut the door rose, but a deep-seated brain twitch screamed not to be provocative or confrontational. I squared my stance. “Yeah, I’m Ron Black.”

Porter pointed to my next-door neighbor’s house. “Have you noticed the activity at Mrs. Nedra Kratz’s home?”

I leaned outside the doorway. Nedra’s house, brick painted a glaring white, gleamed over a hundred feet away. Crime scene tape festooned her untamed crepe myrtles like Christmas garlands. Emergency vehicles idled in the cul-de-sac while disembodied voices rose and fell on a hint of a breeze. Their words landed without any context. I didn’t care. Whatever had happened didn’t involve me. My past could remain where it belonged. Tension oozed away, but I masked my relief, not giving anything away to the cops.

A lawn mower sputtered to life at the entrance to the cul-de-sac, and I glanced at the house as did the detectives. Thursday noon and Kirk Franzen had begun his weekly ten-minute lawn-mowing chore. I should offer to cut the old man’s grass as a peace offering to end this animosity between great-uncle Kirk and me. Two years of the silent treatment surely exceeded whatever crime I’d committed.

Focus.

I regained my position inside the doorway and used my pinkie to gingerly flick the schmutz out of the corner of one of my eyes. “What happened at crazy Kratz’s house?”

“Crazy Kratz?” Porter asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Crazy old lady has thirty-eight cats.”

He nodded. “I’m sorry to inform you, but Mrs. Kratz is dead.”

His words nailed me to where I stood. My adversary had died, ending our feud with a hollow victory. My triumph remained absent any admission from her about being a bad neighbor. I should have been doing the hamster dance, but right now in the middle of my night, I didn’t even care how she had died. I just wanted the world to leave me alone.

“Okay, fine. I’ve been duly informed. I’m going back to bed.” I grasped the door to shut it, glad to end this conversation.

Porter splayed a meaty hand on my door. “Not so fast. We have to clear some questions.”

Detective Porter held my front door open against my effort to close it. Detective Moore glared at me like a cool marble statue despite July’s searing noontime heat and relentless North Carolina humidity.

“Unhand my door.” I cringed over my clumsy phrasing, though not its message. Their resistance to leaving raised a specter of their staying for twenty questions, a game I didn’t want to play.

“Let’s talk.” Sweat glistened on Porter’s sagging jowls.

“Not now. I’m tired.”

He took a step toward me. “Yes, now. It’s important.”

Their inquiry about Nedra wouldn’t involve my past. They didn’t present a warrant, but my gut told me to get it over with and keep it short.

“The cold air is escaping.” I stepped aside and waved them in.

The modern-day Laurel and Hardy brushed past me, and I closed the door. Moore ambled toward the living room as if the muffled sound of my television pulled him forward.

Porter stayed in the foyer and asked the obvious. “Didn’t you hear the commotion at Mrs. Kratz’s house this morning?”

“I work nights and sleep days. You woke me.” To prove my point, I stepped farther inside the foyer and pushed my bedroom door open, an invitation Porter seized.

Standing motionless at the door, I viewed my room as he did. Thick black curtains on the front and side windows kept the room dark as did the dark blue walls. The king-sized bed dominated the room with the shelves of its handmade headboard overflowing with books. Black satin sheets covered the bed. Pillows lay scattered as if I’d had a pillow fight with myself. My earplugs lay in a clean ashtray on the nightstand and overhead, a fan emitted a swishing noise. The master bath reflected the same dark motif.

Porter backed out of the doorway seemingly disappointed. “Yes, asleep,” he said then added, “That’s a lot of books.”

“I like to read. Is that a crime?”

He ignored my question.

“And this room?” He pointed to the closed door across the foyer.

I didn’t see the harm and opened the door. “Spare bedroom I use as my office. Keep my computer and other stuff in there.”

Porter poked his head into the room.

“More books. Are you in school?”

“I’m two classes shy of a Security Analysts degree.”

“Good for you.”

I hadn’t been expecting the positive response. My chest warmed with pride but not enough to melt my annoyance at their presence.

I tapped another door. “Coat closet.” I padded down the hallway toward the living room and opened another door. “Bathroom.”

“Yes, yes I see. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, living room, kitchen and laundry room off the single-car garage. So I’m guessing a one-thousand-square-foot bungalow from the early 1980s?”

Porter sounded more like an amateur real estate broker appraising a property than a detective nosing around.

“Twelve hundred square feet built in 1982 with oak flooring.” I proudly stomped the floor with my bare foot. “The house isn’t big or fancy, but it is my home, free and clear. Now, what do you want to ask me?”

“You don’t seem to be too broken up about Mrs. Kratz’s passing.”

I blew out a breath. “I lost a bad neighbor, not a close relative. She didn’t like me; I didn’t like her. It’s no secret.”

Shots erupted from the television in the living room.

Porter’s eyebrows rose. “Sleeping? Who’s watching television?”

“Come.” I ushered him to the living room.

“Detectives, meet my cockatiel, Brisbane. The boob tube entertains him while I sleep. The Calling Our Police, COP channel, plays twenty-four-seven.”

A commercial for cat litter played on the screen. A cat dressed like Bogart in a trench coat tipped a glass of champagne toward a white feminine cat sporting long eyelashes and squatting in a litter box. “Here’s looking at you, Kitty,” he said. The white cat squatted in the box as the announcer droned on.

Brisbane turned around on his perch, a dowel raised an inch above a card table behind the couch, to inspect the three of us in his living room. He fluffed his wing feathers. As clear as if Steve McGarrett had risen from the grave, the gray bird with clownish-red cheeks said, “Book ’em, Danno.”

Porter laughed, his jowls jiggling. Moore chuckled.

I said, “Not funny, Brisbane,” my dark mood brightened despite the situation.

Set ten feet from the fifty-six-inch flat screen plasma television, Brisbane had a better view of it than I did from my recliner. Cardboard boxes on the table interconnected like a series of small caves—the closest I’d been able to come to mirroring a cockatiel’s natural habitat. Bowls of food and water sat on one side of the table. Treats in small dishes occupied space in front of Brisbane’s perch, including an empty bowl for mashed potatoes—his favorite treat. A dentist’s spit tray hung off another side of the table, a sandbox for his droppings.

Brisbane climbed down from his perch to the sandbox and made a quick deposit. Moore extended a finger to Brisbane, placing it across and against the bird’s chest. He sidestepped up Moore’s sleeve to his shoulder while chattering unintelligible cockatiel chitchat. It seemed odd Brisbane would go to Moore, and even odder that Moore, so meticulously dressed, would accept the possibility of bird dander or worse.

Speaking to Brisbane, Moore said, “I have the COP channel, too. Mystery shows and movies all the time. Isn’t that right, Brisbane?”

“Elementary?” Brisbane said. He waited for a beat then added, “My dear Watson.”

Each detective responded to Brisbane’s wisecrack in his own manner. I’d heard his shtick before. My amusement came from somewhere deeper inside, something akin to a proud parent of an exceptional child.

As I lowered the volume on the television, the state of my undress dawned on me, and I put on the robe draped over the recliner.

Moore scratched the top of Brisbane’s head and wandered toward the large open-space kitchen at the other end of my house.

Porter tapped his notebook with his pencil. “So, where do you work? What time did you get home? And did you notice anything suspicious?”

Except for Nedra and her cats, my life had been quiet and uneventful—just the way I wanted it. But now the probing had begun. Porter’s benign questions could only be the harbinger of something worse. I didn’t need anyone resurrecting my past to upset the present. My future depended upon it.

My ire rose. This intrusion, this inquiry, seemingly benign at the onset, made me want to lash out at them, and the results of my outbursts never worked in my favor. I tightened the belt on my robe with more fervor than I should have. Don’t be provocative I reminded myself and took a cleansing breath.

“I work for Acme Alarm Services. I’m the contract night security guard at Brickman’s Pharmaceuticals in the American Tobacco Campus in Durham. Start at eleven and off at seven, or whenever the receptionist decides to show up. I drove straight into the garage when I came home, did chores, and crawled into bed around nine o’clock.”

Porter nodded, writing in his notebook. “And Brickman’s is about twenty minutes away by car. Right?”

“That’s right.”

I swiveled my recliner around to face him and plopped into it.

“So you got home around seven-twenty this morning.”

“More like seven-forty. Lazy Daisy came in late again, babbling on about her sister having a baby. You’d have thought she helped deliver the kid the way she carried on.”

“How about yesterday and the day before?”

“What does that matter?” I said sharply, regretting my tone immediately.

Porter tapped his pencil on the pad.

I softened my tone. “It’s been the same for six weeks.”

He stopped tapping. “Are you telling me you’ve worked every day for the past six weeks?”

I nodded. “One guard quit, one got fired for theft, and one got killed in a car accident. It all happened over Memorial Day weekend. The colonel hasn’t hired all the replacements yet.”

“The colonel?”

“He’s my boss.”

“All those hours must be rough to handle.” Porter scribbled again.

“If I get eight hours of sleep, I’m fine.” I yawned, hoping he’d take the hint.

“I see.” Porter continued writing on his pad. “So you got home around seven-twenty both Tuesday and Wednesday mornings?”

He had ignored my implied shove out the door.

“That’s right.”

Being conciliatory and hoping that if I cooperated they would leave quicker under the guise of nothing to see here, I softened my tone once more. “The hours aren’t a big deal, and I can use the extra money. I have a bid on a car.” I lowered my voice and spelled out the words. “It’s a 1976 F-I-R-E-B-I-R-D like R-O-C-K-F-O-R-D used to drive. I’m waiting on the call from a private seller.”

“Firebird?” Porter said under his breath and then added with excitement, “Oh, The Rockford Files. I get it. I loved that show.”

I raised my hands to cover my face and groaned with dismay.

Brisbane screamed, “Jim Rockford, Private Eye,” again and again from Moore’s shoulder in the kitchen. He took flight, startling Moore. Porter stepped back from Brisbane’s table, ducking under his arms to shield himself from possible aerial assault.

A cockatiel flies with the grace of a dove. It lands like a clumsy blue-footed boobie. Brisbane alighted on his perch, pitched forward, and planted his face into his small dish of Cheerios. He squawked and then righted himself, dancing on his perch for a few seconds and then stopped moving. He tilted his head sideways, eyeing the opening credits for Marshall Sam McCloud with the bird equivalent of disdain. Brisbane sneezed a few times in McCloud’s direction and then hopped to the table. He waddled into his cave-like boxes, giving a throaty chirp, his sound of disgust.

Moore joined Porter in the living room. They exchanged confused glances.

I pushed myself out of the recliner. “He loves R-O-C-K-F-O-R-D but hates McCloud. Now you know why I spelled it out.” I stretched lazily and yawned. “I need to sleep. You should go. Thanks for letting me know about Nedra.” I stepped toward the front door, entreating them to follow.

Porter didn’t move. “We have more questions.” He held up his notebook.

I stopped. “And I have a date with my pillow.” Annoyance showed in my tone.

He matched me. “I don’t think you understand….”

“I understand plenty. You have a job to do. Do it. No, I didn’t hear anything. No, I didn’t like her, and no, I’m not broken up about the old lady’s death. It happens to people her age, and I hope now someone takes her cats away. They’re a menace.” I marched across the living room, unlocked the backdoor to my deck, and opened it. “See how they scratched up the screen trying to get at Brisbane? Her cats destroy my flowers and knock things over and have ruined who knows how many meals I’ve grilled. And when you call animal control, their response is that they have bigger problems in town.” I slammed the backdoor.

“But–,” Porter said.

“But nothing. She moved in four years ago with five precious baby kittens. Soon five kittens became fifteen cats and then dozens of meowing menaces that stunk up the neighborhood while killing the wildlife in the woods. And I’m glad that now maybe all the cats will be gone.” I crossed my arms. “If all dogs go to Heaven, surely all cats go to Hell.”

Porter’s mouth opened, but no words escaped. Moore clenched his jaw, tightening his already thin face.

I stomped to the front door and opened it wide. “If you have any more questions, call my lawyer.” I’d heard that line dozens of times while the COP channel played. It worked except in the most extreme situations with a rogue cop or cynical private investigator. I hoped it would work. I didn’t have a lawyer.

“That can be arranged,” Moore said and then added, “Goodbye, Brisbane.” He even made a shallow bow toward the silent pile of boxes while Porter pocketed his pad and pencil.

Moore left first. Porter lagged behind. He handed me his card, which I grabbed instinctively. He stopped on the porch outside and faced me while Moore kept striding toward the street.

“We’ll be in touch, Mr. Black. You see, not only has Mrs. Kratz shuffled off this mortal coil, but someone has killed all her cats.”

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