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космическая фантастика
фантастика ужасы
приключения (исторический)
приключения (детская лит.)
детские рассказы
женские романы
античная литература
Научная и не худ. литература
домашние животные
компьютерная литература



Cat Laughing Last

The street was empty except for two parked cars half a block away. Despite the wind, the smell of exhaust still clung along the concrete. Where the tan Infinity had parked, the pavement was patterned with fragments of crumbled eucalyptus leaves, already stirred by the wind, deposited in the shape of tire grids and decorated with crushed green berries.

"Pyracantha berries," Joe said, sniffing. "Don't get that stuff on your nose, Kit. It's poison." The tomcat sat down on the curb. "If that was Augor Prey, maybe he's renting a room, like Harper thought."

How many places in the village rented rooms, and had eucalyptus and pyracantha by the street or by a parking space? Two dozen? Three dozen? The cats looked at each other and shrugged.

"What else have we got?" Dulcie said.

Most likely the guy hadn't been lucky enough to get a garage. Garages in the village were scarcer than declawed cats in a room full of pit bulls. Even a single garage built for a 1920s flivver was a premium item much in demand. The first place that came to Joe's mind was up the hills on the north side. The other house was a block from the beach; both had a eucalyptus tree, pyracantha bushes, and rooms to rent.

"But before we go chasing after Augor Prey," Joe said, "let's give Casselrod a try. See if we can find a connection between him and Traynor." He was silent a moment, his yellow eyes narrowed, his look turned inward as if listening to some interior wisdom.

"What?" she said softly.

"I keep thinking we're missing something. Something big and obvious, right in front of our noses."

"Such as?"

"I don't know, Dulcie. Are the chests the connection between Susan's break-in and Fern's murder? Are a few old Spanish chests enough to kill for?"

"The chests, and Catalina's letters-at some ten thousand each. How many letters were there? Ten letters is a hundred thousand bucks." The concept of that much cash, to a cat, was surreal. Did you count that kind of money by how many cases of caviar that would buy?

"And there are not only Catalina's letters," Joe said, "but Marcos Romero's answers. According to the research in Traynor's office, those letters were smuggled back and forth for years-by travelers, the servants of travelers, by vaqueros herding cattle. Even by some of the mission Indians."

He rose impatiently. "We're not going to learn anything sitting here in the gutter." He headed up the pine tree again, and away across the roofs, Dulcie and the kit close behind him, fighting the wind, heading for Casselrod's Antiques.

In through the high, loose window they moved swiftly, and through the dusty attic presided over by the motionless sewing dummy. She stood stoic and silent, as if disapproving of their trespass. The kit stared at her, and hissed, then approached her cautiously. Sniffing at her iron stand, she turned away with disgust, and was soon caught up in the attic's jumbled maze, lost among Casselrod's ancient and dusty collections. Dulcie glanced back at her only once before following Joe, galloping down the two flights to the main floor.

The first order of business was to call Harper.

Because the information they'd collected was so fragmented, they had delayed that sensitive call, hoping to put some of the pieces together into a tip that was worth passing on. Joe couldn't remember when a case had been so frustrating.

He wondered sometimes if his phone voice carried some disturbing feline echo that made Max Harper uneasy; some unidentifiable overtone, some exotic nonhuman timbre that unsettled the captain.

Harper was an animal-oriented guy, attuned to the moods and body language of dogs and horses, to their subtle communications. What might such a person detect in the timbre of Joe's phone calls that another human might not sense?

Heading across Casselrod's dark showroom into the office, he leaped to the battered secretarial desk, slipped the phone off its cradle, and punched in the number of Harper's cell phone. Following him up, Dulcie pressed her face close to his to listen, her whiskers tickling his nose.

Harper answered curtly. His voice cut in and out as if he might be moving through traffic. Joe knew he could call the station for a better connection, but he never liked doing that.

"You are looking for Augor Prey, Captain. He may be driving a tan, two-door Infinity. Fairly new model. License 2ZJZ417."

Harper repeated the number, not wasting time on small talk. Long ago he had quit asking the snitch useless questions. Maybe, Joe thought, he was getting Harper trained.

"That man tossed Gabrielle French's apartment this evening," Joe said. "And there's another matter that might interest you."

"Go on."

"Elliott Traynor has sold at least two valuable old letters written by-"

"Hold it," Harper said, "you're cutting out. Wait until I turn the corner."

There was a pause.

"Okay," Harper said, coming in more clearly. "Letters written by who?"

"Catalina Ortega-Diaz, the heroine of his play. Traynor sold those two letters for over twenty thousand bucks to a San Francisco dealer."

"What does that-?"

"The history of Catalina tells not only about her letters but about the carved chests in which she kept them-like the three taken from the Pumpkin Coach window, when Fern Barth was killed. Vivi Traynor seems interested in similar chests, as is Richard Casselrod. The white chest that Casselrod took from Gabrielle Row at the McLeary yard sale could be one of the group of seven. Casselrod took it apart, and there was a secret compartment in the bottom, plenty big enough to hold a few letters."

Joe didn't wait for Harper to respond. That was all he had to tell the captain. He punched the disconnect, shoved the phone back in its cradle, and leaped from the desk to a bank of file cabinets, then onto the chair before the rolltop desk.

The lock was engaged, as before. Inserting a claw into the keyhole, he felt delicately for its inner workings.

He tried for some time to line up the tumblers, with no luck. From two flights above them, they could hear the kit leaping and playing among the stored furniture. The lock was more cleverly fashioned than Joe had thought. Both cats tried until their paws felt raw, then Joe tried the metal file cabinets, with no more success. To lose against an inanimate object gave him the same feeling as being caged, a helpless anger gripping him. The drawers were as impenetrable as if Richard Casselrod had invoked some kind of office voodoo. Joe and Dulcie ended up hissing irritably at each other as they pawed through Casselrod's stacked papers.

They found no mention of Elliott Traynor.

"Maybe," Dulcie said, "it was Fern Barth who put Casselrod onto the letters."

"How do you figure that?"

"Say that Fern heard about the play last summer, when Mark King was writing the music. If she wanted the part, she'd have gotten a copy of the script the minute Molena Point Little Theater decided to do it."


"Will you stop pacing those bookshelves! How can I talk to you!"

He sat down on the top shelf beside an ancient leather dictionary.

"Fern reads the play. She talks to Casselrod about the story and about Catalina's letters. Casselrod gets interested, begins to wonder if there really were letters. He does some research, finds that there were, and wonders how much more information Traynor has in his possession.

"When Casselrod goes to New York, he gets in touch with Elliott. Elliott has to know the letters are valuable. Casselrod's an antiques dealer, he could help Traynor search for them."

"That doesn't wash. Why, if Traynor thought there was money in the lost letters, would he deal Casselrod in?"

"He has cancer, Joe. He might be dying, or at the least is very ill. He wants to find the letters, but he doesn't have the time or the energy to pursue such a search. And he doesn't have a contact on the coast that he trusts."

"He has Vivi," Joe said. "He could send her out. He doesn't even know if the letters are still on the West Coast, after some hundred and fifty years."

Dulcie's green eyes widened. "Would you trust Vivi to run that kind of search? Competently? And not cheat your socks off?"

Joe smiled.

She said, "Casselrod is based here on the coast. He has contacts among the antiques dealers and wholesalers, he's in the perfect position to search for the chests and the letters. Traynor will supply the research, find out all he can. Casselrod will do the legwork.

"Casselrod comes home to Molena Point, starts talking to dealers, looking in other antiques shops, checking out the private collections. They figure collectors might want the chests, but probably very few people know about the letters.

"But then Fern finds out that Traynor and Casselrod have joined forces; that her own boss didn't include her, after she was the one who told him about the letters. She gets her back up."

"A lot of conjecture," Joe said. "And how do you explain Traynor giving Fern the lead in Thorns of Gold?"

Dulcie shrugged. "Fern gets mad, wants to get back at them. Say she can't find any hold on Casselrod. Maybe she starts digging into Traynor's past, and finds some dirt on him, maybe some illegal business dealings. She trades her silence for the lead in the play, for the chance to be Catalina."

"That's reaching, Dulcie."

"Maybe. But you keep saying there's something we're not seeing. Maybe that's it."

"So, say you're right. What does-did Fern have on Traynor?"

"That's the mouse that doesn't want to come out of its hole," she said softly. She began to pace along the bookshelves lashing her tail, thinking, working off frustration.

When a scent caught at her, pulling her back, she sniffed deeply at a leather-bound set of Dickens.

"But Gabrielle was in New York, too," Joe was saying. "Maybe she's part of this, maybe…"

Dulcie wasn't listening. She crouched, frozen, staring at the old handsome set of classics. Her tail was very still, then began to twitch. Her whiskers and ears flat, she stalked the leather-bound volumes.

She paused. Carefully she pawed at the books' spines, trying to separate them.

The leather looked old, marred, and faded, but it wasn't crumbly like old leather. The books didn't smell like leather. Looking along the tops of the volumes, Dulcie smiled. Joe watched her with interest.

Dulcie wasn't a library cat for nothing, she knew how to hook her claws behind a book and slide it from the shelves. But these babies wouldn't budge. It was all the two cats could do, together, to pull the set out. Even as it balanced on the edge of the shelf, the books stuck together. One last hard pull, and they leaped aside as the set fell to the table.

It was only a two-foot drop, but the books sounded like a load of bricks dumped from the back of a truck. And they were still stuck all together-one of those clever "hide your valuables" numbers advertised in trinket catalogs.

"No one," Joe said, laughing, "certainly not Richard Casselrod, would be dumb enough to hide anything in this."

"So why is it locked? Maybe it's so obvious, he figured no one would bother to look."

Joe pawed at the lock, certain that this one, too, would resist them. But after four tries something snapped, a faint, clinking sound, and they slid the back of the set away to reveal a hollow brass interior, dry and clean and smelling sharply metallic.

A brown envelope lay within, a small, padded mailer.

"I don't believe this," Joe muttered. But carefully he clawed the envelope out, its cushioned lining crackling. They were working at its little metal clasp when the kit came charging down the stairs, exploding onto the table.

"What?" Joe said, alarmed. "What happened?"

"Nothing," said the kit, surprised. "I just got lonely." She brightened with interest as Joe reached a paw into the crinkling envelope and slid out a letter.

It was fragile and old and musty, the ink faded, the handwriting thin and beautiful.

"Cara mia," Dulcie whispered, picking out a few words she knew from the carefully written Spanish. The paper was so frail that she dared touch it only with the gentlest paw. Hesitantly she lifted the page and turned it over to the small, scrolled signature.

"Catalina," she said softly.

Joe sat looking, twitching a whisker. The kit was very quiet, sniffing the scent of old paper. Dulcie tried to find other Spanish words that she recognized, but she could not. The handwriting was fine and elegant and, in itself, hard for her to read. "What will we do with it?" she asked Joe. "We can't take it with us. If it blew away, if we lost it… Maybe we should put it back where we found it? So Casselrod won't-"

"No way. No matter what kind of monkey wrench we throw in the works, we're not leaving this here."

With misgivings, she helped him slide the letter back into the padded brown envelope and claw-closed the metal clasp. A letter worth ten thousand dollars, which they would have to carry between them, across the windy rooftops.

They spent a long time working at the brass box to shift it back into the shelves. They had to push books under to lift it up, tipping it to insert one book at a time until they had it to the height of the shelf, then shoving it back where they'd found it. The operation seemed to take forever. But maybe, with the fake set of Dickens back in its exact place, Casselrod wouldn't look at it for some time. At last they headed for the attic, Dulcie carrying the envelope in her teeth.

"Interesting," Joe said, trotting up the wooden steps, "that Casselrod put the letter there instead of in the big combination safe downstairs."

Her voice was muffled by the envelope. "Did he put it there? Or did Fern? It smells of both of them." As they dropped from Casselrod's attic window onto the windy balcony, she concentrated on keeping the envelope from being snatched from her mouth. Starting across the roofs, they held it between them, fighting the scudding gusts. When their passage startled a sleeping bird that flew up in their faces, the kit took a swipe at it; but she let it go and came chasing after them, her galloping paws thudding on the shingles. Only the kit could run the rooftops sounding like a herd of horses, yet could race, when she chose, as silent as a soaring owl. Twice the wind snatched the envelope nearly from their teeth; they could only pray that the letter wasn't damaged. At last the three cats were off the roofs, backing down a pine tree two blocks from Joe's house, Joe's teeth clamped into the edge of the envelope. As he looked ahead to the white Cape Cod, suddenly he ached to be inside his own house, warm and full of supper and settled down in his clawed and comfortable chair.

How lonely the house looked. Not even the porch light was on, and no car in the drive.

But no matter, it was home, he just wanted to be inside. Wanted his creature comforts-some supper, and a few hours snooze, and he'd be ready to roll again.

But then, padding up the dark steps, he imagined his home turned into a restaurant with lights burning everywhere and cars filling the street and crowds of strangers shouting and laughing in the rooms that were his own, and he didn't like that scene.

Hastily dragging the envelope, with Dulcie and the kit close behind him, he pushed through his cat door into the welcoming dark and the good familiar smells of home-smells of old Rube, of the household cats, of kibble and spaghetti and furniture polish and Clyde's running shoes, all the comforting mix of aromas that had never been so welcome.

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