…continued from Chapter 8A
The first office on the left was a study in organized chaos. Books, files and papers were piled on every available horizontal surface, with the exception of the desk, which held a computer, a telephone, a yellow legal pad, and a thin silver pen. A high-backed, so-called “executive’s chair” sat behind the desk; before it, an abundantly scarred leather wingback, a black metal cane with a molded rubber grip leaning against the near arm.
“My bow to Nero Wolfe,” Jeremy Fine said from behind her. “For a ridiculously long time I wanted to be Nero Wolfe, but I found I simply wasn’t that interested in food.”
“What about orchids?” Sarah asked, turning as he limped across the threshold.
“Orchids I thought I might warm to, given sufficient time,” he said seriously.
He began to move past her, paused and extended a hand.
“My apologies. If you’ll hand me that, you’ll be able to sit down.”
She passed him the cane and got herself into the wingback, putting the bag between her feet and pointedly not watching to see if he used the cane to ease him over the last few steps to his chair.
“Are you a fan of detective fiction, Ms. Butler?” The ironic tone was more pronounced. Sarah looked up and met his eyes across the desk.
“‘fraid so. Also science fiction. Do you always quote Isaac Asimov to people who’re threatening to kill you?”
His face relaxed into a smile. “There is much to be learned from Salvor Hardin,” he said. The smile faded. “Not that most people will learn it. Still, there’s a certain comfort to be had from quoting him in times of stress.”
“Something like Marcie’s yell, only not so loud,” Sarah said, and the smile glimmered again.
“Something like.” He settled against the back of his chair and raised a hand.
“So, you found an angry message from Gerry Pickersgill on the Project’s answering machine when you reported for work. Tell me, did you call him back?”
Sarah shook her head. “Thought I might, then I realized I didn’t know enough to be sure I wouldn’t make things worse. I went through the files, called your office – you were gone by then, so I left the message. When I downloaded the email this morning, I saw your note to Elaine and realized that maybe Mr. Pickersgill was – ahh, reworking the truth for effect – so I tried to call you again. The line was busy, it was a nice day for a walk, so I came over on the chance you’d have time to see me.” She tipped her head, considering him. “Do you have time to see me?”
“I am completely at your disposal,” he told her, deadpan. “And, as you have correctly surmised, you were wise not to call Gerry back. I – ” he glanced to the left, where a black-and-white plastic clock hung on the wall. “Excuse me, Ms. Butler. This shouldn’t take long.” He leaned across the desk, punched a quick series into the phone and sat back in the chair, receiver at his ear.
“Ned, it’s Jeremy; I’m glad I caught you. We just had a rather unpleasant – Ah, he’s on the other line? Excellent. Don’t let me keep you, then. Give me a call this afternoon, if you – I’m afraid he threatened violence against us. Yes, both of us – a woman and a man he knows to be smaller than he – no, no – your apologies are completely unnecessary. It was mere luck that he was assigned to be your client instead of mine. The pattern, howev – Yes, completely returned, thank you. Racquetball? No, it would be ungentlemanly of me not to allow you a chance to recoup your honor. My calendar’s in overflow for the next while. Why don’t you give me a call on the …” He glanced at the calendar hanging below the clock. “On the fifteenth and we’ll set something up, then – right. Yes, I’ll be in all day. Thanks, Ned.” He leaned forward and cradled the phone, looked up and caught Sarah’s eye.
“Racquetball in three weeks?” She shook her head. “How many pins are in that leg?”
Almost, she thought he would smile again; instead, he raised a finger as he sat back in the chair. “That is a personal question, Ms. Butler, and we are not even on a first name basis.”
“Call me Sarah,” she said, and grinned at him.
He managed to keep his answering smile to a twitch along one side of his mouth. “Jeremy. Six. (CHECK THIS) And I merely offered to arrange a game in three weeks. If I’m clever, I’ll be able to put the actual playing off for another two weeks beyond that.”
“Oh, OK,” Sarah said, with broad sarcasm. “Plenty of time.”
He actually laughed – a pleasant sound – and shook his head. “Since I’ve had it forcibly impressed upon me that I should not have lived through the accident, no matter how many pieces I happened to be in, I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to compound the miracle and beat Ned at racquetball in five weeks’ time.”
“No reason at all.” She tipped her head, considering him.
His eyebrows rose. “Why do you say that?”
“The way you were standing at Marcie’s desk during that phone call – calm and centered and in complete control,” Sarah said, seriously. “I spent a lot of time in the company of predators over the last couple years, and I learned to read body language – and how to send the right signals. I’d studied tai-chi when I was an undergrad. Turns out it was exactly the kind of discipline I needed to talk to wolves. It seems like you might spend some time talking to wolves yourself, and so I guessed – but it wasn’t anything more than a guess.” She grinned again. “No telepaths here. Move along, move along.”
He shook his head. “Guess or telepathy, you’re good. I’ve been studying since I was in high school. And I’m doing physical therapy for the leg, as well as getting back to the dojo.” He shrugged. “So, I might not be able to keep up with Ned on the racquetball court in five weeks, but, then again, I might.”
“And in either case, it wouldn’t do to let him see that you’re vulnerable.” Sarah nodded. “Understood.”
There was a brief silence before Jeremy shifted in his chair.
“Let me tell you,” he said, “about Gerry Pickersgill.”
He was bleeding from a bite to his shoulder, and one of the attackers lay dead, its throat gone. The four remaining continued to harry him, working in tandem to keep him boxed between the Dumpster and the wall.
Rats, he knew, did not fight like this. There was something wrong, something else he should be defending against, for which the rats were but a diversion — yet they pressed him so closely there was no time to think, only to react, defend, attack –
He hissed as yellow fangs scraped his swiping foreleg; screamed as the intended victim ducked – too quick, too canny – away from the killing blow.
Two wounds bleeding – and still the rats held formation, slashing and harrying, his nose filled with nothing but the stink of them. One darted close and his body leapt, obedient to cat reactions – cat wisdom – and he saw the trap even as he landed well in the midst of them – surrounded now and nothing to do but let the cat have the day, for better or for worse –
A neck broke in his jaws – he shook the corpse away, ribs burning where he had taken his third wound, and it was red he saw now; and the keening racket of his own voice he heard – swearing, or calling for aid.
And aid there suddenly was – a white blur, and there was one less rat among the harriers. Now, the two remaining seemed at last to understand their danger – to act, too late, like proper rats, and run.
Leaping, he broke the back of one fleeing villain, and left it screaming while he turned – and found the last neatly dead on the asphalt, and the White One serenely cleaning a paw. Wearily, he dispatched his last victim, and then simply stood there, eyes closing, pain and weariness washing over him in waves. Rat-bites. He should clean himself…
A soft burr filled his ears, and his shoulder was suddenly eased, despite the vigor with which the fur was stroked. He opened his eyes to slits, saw the White One cleaning the wound.
He shuddered, lifted his forepaw to tend to that hurt – and paused, seeing with not quite cat eyes a shiver in the air on the threshold of the secret door. He stared, and it resolved itself reluctantly, displaying a thick and unappealing form, long-armed, low-browed and hunched. It grinned, showing yellow fangs that might well have belonged to a rat, then lost its shape once more, becoming a drift of noxious mist which sullied the air for a moment – and was gone.
“What Gerry Pickersgill wants,” Jeremy said, leaning back in his chair, “Gerry Pickersgill gets.”
“How lovely for him,” Sarah answered from the depths of the high leather chair. “Is there a particular reason for that?”
He smiled at her. “Yes, Grasshopper, with this as with all things, there is a reason – fear, in a word. From the city council down to Joe Landlord, everybody is just a little bit afraid of Gerry Pickersgill – even those who admire him for his role in making the city viable.”
“Ah. Is he? Making the city viable?”
“That depends, as do so many things, upon one’s particular and personal definition of a word, in this case ‘viable.’ Gerry has helped improve the look and feel of some deteriorating neighborhoods. He comes in, buys up vacant lots, deserted warehouses – ” he inclined his head in her direction, “surplus museums; waves his magic contractor’s wand and hey, presto! We now have upscale townhouses, loft apartments, and luxury condominiums. The people who purchase these properties are then invested in cleaning up their neighborhood and keeping it clean – and Gerry has done good. Entirely by accident.”
“Nothing says you have to do good on purpose,” Sarah pointed out, after she counted three heartbeats and he had said nothing else. “Just that you shouldn’t do wrong on purpose.”
His mouth twitched – not a smile.
“And there we come to the crux of the matter. For Gerry, the end always justifies the means.”
“That’s awkward.” Sarah allowed. “What’s his beef with the cats? Really, I mean, not the stuff in the file.”
Jeremy rested his head on the back of the chair, angling his glasses toward the ceiling.
“Unless there’s something more in the file than Elaine showed to me, his beef is exactly what he says. He believes that the cat colony is a danger to the success of his new project, and the fact that Elsphet Mason managed to nag and harass the city into declaring the “Hob Alley cats” citizens isn’t even on his radar.”
Sarah frowned. “I thought that business about the cats being made citizens and entitled to city protection was just an Our Founder story.”
“Well, it is,” Jeremy said. “It just happens to be a true Our Founder story. Elsphet Mason was by every account I’ve ever heard or read, an extraordinary piece of work. If she were alive today, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, because she would have already dealt with Gerry and the funeral would be yesterday’s news.”
“Seance?” Sarah suggested after she had considered this in light of the single photograph she had seen of The Founder.
“If I thought it would work – but no, Grasshopper. We are taught by the gods to be honorable and to build upon the work of those who came before us. That being so, we’ve got to find our own solution to Gerry. I’ll admit that the concept of taking out a contract on him is attractive, but we’re constrained to do better than that.”
She sighed. “I hate to say this, but I agree with you. So – can we do better?”
There was a short pause. “I think we can. And – this may not be in the file – you should be aware that I am acquainted with Gerry; we were in law school together.”
“On top of everything else, he’s a lawyer?”
“Not quite – he never finished his coursework.”
“Ah.” She took a couple of deep breaths and went over it in her mind, not hurrying, not conscious of any impatience in the man across the desk.
“Understand that I’m just filling in on this until Elaine gets back,” she said eventually, and paused. Jeremy nodded, but didn’t speak.
“What’s the plan? I’m assuming that there is a plan or you wouldn’t have been calling on him yesterday in Elaine’s place.”
“Right.” He straightened in his chair and leaned forward, elbows on the desk. “First off, Gerry needs to get used to the idea that he – or his counsel – have to talk with me, as the Project’s outside counsel. I’ll be calling his counsel today and expressing that idea to her – it’s something I’m pretty sure she’s familiar with, and I really don’t expect any more roadblocks as far as talking to Gerry – or, rather, to Pickersgill Development. Convincing him that the cats ought to stay is going to be a shade more difficult, and I expect it will go to litigation. I’ll be researching the exact grant of rights to the colony, in anticipation of that. Barbara – Gerry’s lawyer – might be convinced by the grant, but Gerry tends to believe that there’s no problem so big or so nasty that it can’t be solved by throwing lots of lawyers at it.”
“So this could get stupid real quick,” Sarah summed up. “And stay that way for years.”
“Correct.” He raised a finger. “But bear in mind that – while these stupid things are taking forever to be resolved – the cats cannot legally be moved, dispersed or otherwise interfered with. Gerry may try to get an eviction based on health issues, but we’ve already got the chops to put that one away.”
“Well, that’s a relief.” She bent down and gathered up her bag. “I’ve interfered with your work long enough,” she said, standing and smiling down at him. “Keep me posted, OK? And thank you for taking the time to go over this with me.”
He rose to his full height, and she saw him flinch, almost invisibly, when his weight came down on the bad leg. Smiling, he stretched a hand out. She took it and they shook.
“It was a pleasure to meet you, and I will indeed keep you posted. If you get any more phone calls from Gerry, just refer him to me.” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “And you are my work. The retainer check cleared yesterday.”
* * *
She’d dawdled on the walk back to the office, taking the time to contemplate the artful displays in several small galleries, and to appreciate the intriguing scents of lunch wafting out of the open doors of the restaurants she passed. At Looie’s Loot, she spent a couple minutes shopping the jeans, shirts, and sweaters, with her mind very much on her limited wardrobe. She saw a couple things in her size that looked doable, and a rack of what looked to be brand-new leather vests at the back, next to a rocking chair inhabited by an extremely asleep orange-and-white cat.
“That’s Looie,” a raspy voice said from somewhere behind the rocker. “You lookin’ for anything particular, miss?”
“I’m new in the neighborhood – just browsing to see what’s here,” Sarah said, peering over the chair just as a gray-haired man of about her own height came out of what she supposed must be the back room.
He gave her a grin, teeth showing white and gold, and stepped closer. His orange sportshirt was open at the neck, displaying a plentiful collection of gold chains.
“Name’s Riley,” he said, holding an elegant hand out over the back of the chair. Sarah gave it a business-like shake, and he sighed.
“All the girls shake like boys nowdays,” he said. “In my time, a lady just put her hand down soft.”
Sarah grinned at him. “My aunt did her best, but ‘lady’ never took.”
He smiled. “You the young lady come to work for Elaine?”
“That’s me,” she admitted, resigned to the world knowing her name and her business – at least here, she thought, she rated ‘young lady’ – “Sarah Butler’s my name.”
“Well, Sarah, I’m pleased to meet you – and so would Looie be, if you wasn’t here right in the middle of his nap-time.” He cocked a sapient eye at her. “Home girl, aincha?”
No use denying it; her accent gave her away. It always did. So – “Grew up over near the art institute,” she told Riley, meaning the Maryland Institute College of Art, up on Mount Royal Avenue.
He nodded. “Welcome home, then, Sarah. This old city’s glad to have you back.”
Ridiculously, she felt sudden tears; and blinked to clear them away. “Thank you,” she said, somewhat unsteadily.
“That’s all right,” Riley said, and swept his hand out, showing her the store and its contents. “You need anything – clothes, tennies, baseball bat, dishes, old records, or maybe one of them eight track players, you come on back and see us – Looie an’ me’ll get you set up in style.”
She grinned. “Thank you,” she said again, warmed. “You can count on seeing me again.”
“I will, then,” he said, smiling, and turned toward the back room, with a wave of his long hand.
Back at Project headquarters, ham-and-swiss on whole wheat and a glass of iced tea to hand, she accessed her personal email from Elaine’s machine, grumbling as she killed out a week’s worth of spam. The real letters weren’t much – a note from Chin Liu wondering insincerely how the new job went and offering various malicious tid-bits of departmental gossip – she killed that one like she had the rest of the spam, stomach cramping.
Idiot, she snarled at herself. You know better than to read anything from Liu!
The next, from the Registrar, asked for an address to which her records might be mailed. She typed in the project’s information, and sent it back.
The last was from Sue James.
Sarah closed her eyes, took several deep breaths, and had a sip of iced tea.
Thus fortified, she opened the email.
Hi, Sarah. Here’s the list of documents Bernie says he needs for the inquiry. Thanks. Sue.
The list was short – and peculiar. Sarah scrolled down, bewilderment edging out anger.
[THESE WILL HAVE TO BE FIXED. SOMEHOW.]
Cross-species Telepathy? The Lupine Connection? Integrated Life Senses?
“Bernie Foster has lost his mind,” Sarah said outloud, and reached for her sandwich.
Chewing, she considered the list. Allen’s specialty was ethology; he was in fact the living expert on the social behaviors of wolves. Or had been until Bernie Foster called his work into question and badgered him into a heart attack. He had approached his work rigorously, and insisted that she do the same; and he had been the last person on earth to indulge in or encourage what he derided as “whoo-whoo wolfie magic.” Sarah, who had grown up listening to Aunt Bett ridicule the “so-called family talents,” and who was accustomed to suspecting and concealing her share of them, registered Allen’s dislike of anything even faintly “metaphysical” as absolutely genuine.
And now Bernie Foster was looking for publications – publications supposedly written by Allen James, Realist, citing telepathic links between humans and wolves?
“I don’t think so,” Sarah said to the screen and finished her sandwich slowly. When that was done, she still sat, staring at the screen and through it, seeing Bernie Foster in her memory’s eye. Professional jealousy, there, yes. And Allen had not be kind to Bernie – took a bit of pleasure, Sarah had always thought, in questioning the other man’s conclusions. It was no more than Allen did to anyone, really, but some folks had thinner skins than, say, Sarah Butler – and Bernie Foster was one of them.
So, now Allen was in the hospital, bound for a rehab facility, and out of the academic picture for the time being. Bernie Foster was acting department chair, which, thank God, kept him from chairing the inquiry, though he was still way too involved in the process than an accuser should be. In Sarah’s opinion.
And he was looking for stuff that no one in their right mind would ever believe Allen had written.
“Just bizarre….” She nursed the last of her tea and by the time it was done had decided on a course of action. There wasn’t much else Bernie could do to her – by challenging her mentor and thesis advisor’s professional credentials he’d pretty well put a spoke through her wheel until the inquiry had rendered its opinion.
Slowly, feeling neither bewildered nor particularly angry now, but slightly edgy and of breath – God, she hated this stuff – she reached for the keyboard.
She addressed the email to Bernie, with a copy to the chairman of the inquiry, one Dr. Desault, who was a good egg, and not only knew an ethic when he saw one, but respected it, and another to Sue James, who might or not might convey the gist to her father, but who did need to know that Sarah was taking care of Bernie, like she’d promised.
Dear Dr. Foster, she typed deliberately. Dr. James’ daughter asked me to write to you to explain the absence of the below-referenced publications from the materials I previously sent at the request of the Board of Inquiry. The reason these publications were not included in the previous packet of materials is that, to the very best of knowledge and belief, Dr. Allen James is not their author.
As you are aware, Dr. James is hospitalized and will be unable to attend to the business of the inquiry for some time. In addition to caring for her father, Professor James is herself a faculty member and does not have time to deal with demands for non-existent papers. I have begun employment in Baltimore and there is little I can do long-distance to help you, except to tell you where certain items might be found among Dr. James’ professional effects. However, where the items requested are entirely imaginary, my utility – and my patience – become severely impaired.
If there is anything I might usefully do to further assist the Board of Inquiry, please don’t hesitate to be in touch with me. I include my contact information below.
She leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes, counted to five hundred, and opened her eyes again to re-read what she had written.
It was snarky. It was attitudinal. It would make Dr. Desault smile and Bernie Foster frown.
In a word – it was good.
She hit “send,” and reached for the telephone to call Glenda to confirm tomorrow night’s date.
The water was smooth beyond the gate, giving back polished reflections of the evergreen land. On the far side of the gate it had been raining, and he was wet, scarcely fitting for a royal hostage.
He touched the air with his thought, warming it, and so dried himself. Then he straightened, shook out his cloak, flung his hair back and went to the prow, where he would be visible to the hidden warriors of the Queen.
The fine cloak was heavy with embroidery and precious stones; the circlet pressed tightly against his temples. He wished, briefly, for his oiled sweater and wool cap, but, there – the Queen had named a prince as the price of a king’s good conduct, and a prince in all his High Court glory the Queen should have.
“Captain…” came the quick murmur from his first mate, but he had already seen the dock, and the glitter of arms, cruel in the pellucid day.
“Steady on course,” he said, willing the water to carry his words to those who waited upon the land. “We are granted safe passage by the Queen.”
“Aye,” returned his mate and the ship moved forward, sail plump with breeze, prow cutting the still green water like a blade slices cheese.
The land grew nearer; he could see faces, now – strangers. He put his hand on the carven neck of the figurehead – his own sweet Seacat; he would have no other ship to bring him here, trust no other to bear his father safely home.
Silent as its namesake, Cat drifted to the dock. There came the rapid and controlled sounds of activity behind him, as she was made fast and the sails reefed. Ashore, strangers awaited him, their comely faces closed, their weapons at ready. The one face he looked for – that one he did not see, and his blood chilled in his veins. He raised his hand and his crew paused in their labors, the ramp as yet unlowered.
“Where stands the lord of the Silken Waters?” he called.
There was stir ‘mongst the golden-haired warriors aground and one stepped forward, wearing the silver and black of the Queen’s House, a centurion’s crest upon his helm.
“His lordship stands safe within the protection of his Queen. Run out the ramp and let it be done quickly.”
He looked down and met eyes as blue and as warm as sapphire.
“Show me my father, Hundred Captain. This ship serves him, not you.”
Another shift in the crowd, this as archers took aim. He drew the sweet air deep into his lungs and returned the centurion’s stare. For a heartbeat – two – it hung in balance, then the other raised his hand, the archers dropped their points, and three at the left stood aside to let one dressed in the green and blue of the House of Silken Waters come forward until he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Queen’s captain.
He looked up – green eyes in a face worn and solemn.
“Run down the ramp, my son,” he said, and his voice was deep as the sea.
Tears started to his eyes. He lowered his hand, and the ramp ran out, the crew unloading the cargo right smartly, then retreating on silent bare feet to Cat, each to take up their stations, their harpoons, or their bows. It was only wisdom to expect treachery in the Queen’s own country.
It was time.
He left his place, walked steadily across the deck to the ramp, and down, pausing at the center his arms held wide.
Escorted by the centurion, his father came to the base of the ramp, then proceeded up, alone. At the center, they embraced.
“Do not let her try you,” his father whispered. “It is only a small time, and then you will be home.”
“Go safely,” he answered. “Go now.” He stepped back, pulled the sword in its sheath from his belt, offered it across his palms.
A moment, and the weapon was received, his father passed on, to the ship, to home.
And he went on, alone, to the dock, and the land, the sound of the ramp being run up loud behind him, and was immediately surrounded by guards.
Sarah sat in the garden as the bright day waned, the log book that was her rightful concern and the yellow pad she had adopted as her own on the stone bench beside her, a photograph album on her knee.
The oldest photos in the book were original with The Founder herself; not surprising, as she had been a notable photographer before she married Mr. Mason’s money. After the happy event, she had assumed the duties of a society wife, but retained, according to the biography Sarah had read on the bus, her artistic eye and had always kept a Pentax about her person. Her absorption with the Hob Alley cats had, indeed, sprung from a rather eerie shot she had grabbed one early October evening, when every shadow appeared inhabited. The cats, draped across the dock, lounging by the back door of Goodfellow’s, perched in the fledgling oak, seemed perfectly at home – at once agents of and coolly detached from the overlaying weirdness. It was an extremely powerful photograph and Sarah had spent some time contemplating it while the miles rolled under the bus tires.
The photographs in the album, while not as mesmerizing as the one reproduced in Elsphet P. Mason: Cat Lady of Baltimore, certainly drew the eye. Sarah felt that she had met the fifteen cats of the original colony, and would recognize any one of them, should they suddenly come strolling into her borrowed garden.
The original photos were captioned in a flowing script, which was hard to read only because the ink was beginning to fade. Sarah reached for the yellow pad and made a note to locate someone who knew how to properly archive photographs and old ink.
Elsphet had named her cats, of course – the mark of Adam, Allen had used to say of the propensity – the necessity – of humans to name other creatures. She had thankfully eschewed such things as Fluffy, Mittens, Snowball, and Tiger, opting instead for Ophelia, Guineviere, Lancer, and Napolean. The photos managed to catch the essence of each: Lancer’s boldness, Ophelia’s shyness, Napolean’s machinations and Guineviere’s flirtatiousness.
And the alley – the alley was in Elsphet’s day a prosperous place, shop awnings unfurled, and flowers in tubs by open doorways. The dock was in good repair, and several of the photos showed workman loading crates onto, or off of, wagons, always a cat or two to be seen in the shadows, solemnly watching the work go forth.
Indeed, the only photo without a cat anywhere to be seen was one of the last – a group of suited and very uncomfortable looking men. The man in front, the most uncomfortable-looking of the group by at least a factor of five, was holding an elaborately framed page out toward the camera.
The fading ink-pen caption read, “The Hob Alley cats are made citizens of Baltimore, by the Mayor and City Council.”
Sarah grinned, and made a note to show the photo to Jeremy.
Beyond the mayor and council was only one more page of cat photos, then a few blank sheets, and more photos, obviously taken by someone of a different – or no, thought Sarah, already longing for the Founder’s spare and informative sepia tones – artistic sensibility.
The first couple pages were filled with so-called “instant” Polaroids, pictures shot long, colors fading, details fuzzy. Beneath each, dates were written in deep black ink – April 1978, May 1978, June… and so on through September, one picture a month, all of them undecipherable, until suddenly a new page began with a succession of crisp black-and-whites, showing the alley and the cats in several different angles and attitudes.
The black-and-whites ended in February 1979, with a shot of three cats snuggled into a bale of hay beneath the deserted dock, the alley inches deep in snow that showed the crossing and recrossing of cat tracks.
May started the next page, in living color, the alley bathed in bright sun and a cat – a rather singular looking cat – standing in the center of it all, one front paw up, and generally looking slightly bewildered, as if it hadn’t expected an alley, sunshine, spring. The long, silky fur was a creamy brown color, the foolishy luxuriant tail cocoa-colored; a mask of matching cocoa framed the eyes, leaving the aristocratic nose cream-and-pink.
Sarah frowned down at the photo, once again seeing the flash of cream and cocoa in the alley’s oak tree this morning….
“Probably this one’s great-great-great-grandcat,” she muttered, and frowned some more. The cat in the picture looked like a kind of cat – a breed. Yet what breed it might be – Maine coon? she thought, then shook her head.
Admit it, Butler, you don’t know from cat breeds. Look it up, before you make an ass of yourself.
Happily, the means to look it up was near at hand – the Project housed a fine library of cat references. She’d measure the cat in the photo against the illustrated encyclopedia, purely for her own interest. Later.
For now, she continued to leaf through the album, pleased to discover that the photography never again dipped below competent. The cream-and-cocoa cat appeared several times – in September of 1979, July of 1980, November of 1982, June of 1985…
Amazingly tenacious genes, Sarah thought, and continued her perusal through the years, watching the alley crumble from prosperity, the awnings disappearing from the photos one by one, the dock sliding from a cheerful, bustling presence into a sullen brooder. The cats themselves changed while the colony itself seemed to stay remarkably stable – and suddenly, she was in a page full of cats – brown cats, orange cats, white, black and gray cats. The word “Census” had been printed at the top of the page, and the date, April 30, 2004.
Sarah leaned over the page, squinting now that the garden was in shadow. She counted twenty cats, none of which showed the distinctive cream-and-cocoa markings; none of which were white.
“The white one was pretty young,” she muttered, lifting the page in a vain effort to see more clearly. “Could be he’s a relatively new arrival. If so, we’re going to have to make sure he’s had his visit to the vet…”
She lifted the page closer, and her fingers felt a slick surface on the back side of the page. Frowning, she flipped it over – and found one last photo.
The rotting dock at twilight, shadows deep and treacherous. Just beneath the pier, two cats sat companionably side-by-side. One was a big, plush short hair, its brindle-colored fur shot with blazes of orange, ears notched, his shoulders broad; his eyes a clear and luminous yellow. A tough and competent customer, right enough. And yet somehow the eye was drawn to the second cat – the long creamy fur slightly fluffed, as if the evening were found to be slightly chill, the ridiculous tail wrapped precisely ’round the front toes, light eyes looking disdainfully down the long nose and directly into the camera.
In the dim garden, Sarah shivered, looked up, and closed the album.
“Getting dark, Butler. Read the log inside under an electric light, like a civilized bean.”
…here ends the splinter