Jan 01 1996

Stray Cat Strut

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© 1996 by John “The Gneech” Robey

Michael Malcolm Macbeth sat in his car, with his head rubbing the upholstery of the ceiling, and it dawned on him that what was really irritating about everyday problems was the very fact that you had to deal with them every day.

Michael was relatively placid in the face of major catastrophes … wars, terrorism, tornadoes and earthquakes, the cutting of university funds … all of these things he could face bravely and without rancor, because they were Big Problems that simply came up and required dealing with. Everyday problems, on the other hand, were a constant annoyance and, unlike Big Problems, were unsolvable by definition.

Everyday problems included such things as the pathological horror that car manufacturers and clothing designers shared for people who were taller than 5’11” and more than one and a half feet wide. Car manufacturers dealt with this horror by simply denying the fact that such people existed, while clothing designers tried to overcome the objects of their horror by dressing them in ill-fitting and badly made clothes that suggested that all that these larger people did all day was to stand around golf courses looking spectacularly tacky.

This was a problem Michael was intimately acquainted with. Being a rather enormous 6’4″ and a few inches over two feet wide, he had been unable to fit comfortably in cars or reasonably attractive clothing since he was fourteen. Whenever he confronted car dealers or clothing salespeople about this, they unanimously agreed that it was Michael’s own damn fault for having the gall to grow so bloody big. And while specialty shops and mail-order catalogs would occasionally have something Michael could stand to wear, he had yet to see a “Big and Tall Used Car Dealership.”

Another everyday problem was rain; that is to say, not the rain itself, but the way people in Virginia react to it. In Seattle or London or some other place where rain is more literally an everyday occurrence, people ignore it. But in Virginia, when clouds appear, as they are wont to do in the depths of summer, people immediately head for their cars. “I’d better get on the road before it starts to rain and all the idiots come out,” they all say, and instantly cause a large, damp traffic jam.

This was the situation that Michael found himself in, now, sitting in his immobile car, bumping his elbow against the door and his head against the ceiling, rain drenching his left arm through the open window because it was summer and his car’s air conditioner didn’t work. Just enough of his car did work to make it cheaper to hold onto than to buy another car, but only just. That was another whole set of everyday problems that, for the time being, Michael was content not to think about.

He took some consolation in the fact that he would have been on the road whether it was raining or not, and therefore he didn’t qualify as an idiot. He was a detective of sorts, and he was on a case, and that case required him to make his agonizing way across the Huguenot Bridge, crossing from the West End of Richmond over to the South Side, even though the entire population of the city appeared to have decided right at that moment that they wanted to cross the bridge as well.

Strictly speaking he wasn’t a licensed investigator of any kind, nor was he actively involved in any form of official law enforcement; he was simply a man with a rapacious intellect, a knack for solving problems, and what seemed to be a powerful but not exactly reliable form of clairvoyance. He could from time to time, without the slightest conscious knowledge of how the mechanism of it worked, see into the ethereal plane (whatever that may mean), pick winning state lottery numbers (unfortunately, he could never tell just which state the numbers would win for), get psychometric flashes and visions of the past or future (except they tended to be events that have little or no bearing on whatever he was doing at the moment), or even get telepathic flashes (reading, of course, the most embarrassing thoughts of whomever).

He had tried marketing himself as a ‘psychic detective,’ but found himself getting nasty phone calls from people who referred to themselves as ‘real detectives,’ who deeply resented Michael’s existence in general and his sullying of the profession of private detective in particular. These calls were rapidly followed up by a visit from a small and badger-like man representing an important-sounding but nevertheless obscure regulatory agency, who demanded to see his Investigator’s License and asked how long he’d been a Compliance Agent and just how he’d become one without their noticing. When Michael responded innocently that he had no idea what a Compliance Agent was, the man had gleefully shut down his fledgling business right there and then and made all sorts of threatening noises about prosecution. In a strange occurrence of bureaucracy working in the public’s favor, however, the case had been lost under a file cabinet or something similar and appeared to have been forgotten. Since Michael’s intention had been to help people in his own way, rather than to defraud anyone, he chalked it up to good karma and moved on.

Another drawback of the title ‘psychic detective’ was that he also frequently received calls from people wanting advice on their financial situation or (more commonly) their love life. Whenever he’d start rattling off his fees on a per-day or per-case basis, they would immediately hang up.

This whole situation had led him to coin the phrase ‘Paranormal Consultant,’ which had thus far served him much better, if for no other reason than he didn’t receive irate phone calls from real consultants. It was a bit more difficult to find work, however, because the question that everybody asked when they heard the title was, “So what exactly is it that you do?” Detectives, after all, detected things. Since there didn’t seem to be a Virginia State Consultation Regulatory Office (or if there was, it hadn’t come after him yet), all he’d needed to do was get a business license and pay his taxes, and everything would (hopefully) turn out all right.

Michael’s current client was one of the first since his professional rebirth, a somewhat harried-seeming young woman who had been referred by a friend’s friend who had met Michael’s parapsychology instructor at VCU. She seemed to be convinced that her cat was the victim of some sort of supernatural possession and wanted Michael to remove the unnatural influence; Michael’s instinctive reaction, of course, had been How can you tell the difference? Nevertheless, it was work and it was work that, if there was anything more to it than a peevish cat and a hysterical owner, was definitely suited to his unique talents.

The cat had taken to disappearing for extended lengths of time and ending up in another woman’s back yard in an all together different part of town. Michael’s client lived in West End, while the cat’s destination was always a house in Bon Aire, which was across the river. Michael had to admit that it was a very unusual hike for a cat to choose to make, since the only ways across the river entailed crossing fairly busy bridges that had no sidewalks, or taking a dip in the rushing brown water of the James, something cats were not generally prone to doing.

Ariel Tanring (the cat’s owner) had found the cat beside the road, half-dead, over a year ago on a visit to New York, and brought him home. Aside from a general moodiness and a complete ineptitude at feline things (Ariel had never seen him catch a mouse or play with string, and he never landed on his feet when he fell, which was amazingly often for a cat), he seemed to be fairly happy. When he took a fairly serious spill off of Ariel’s curtain-rod, she decided to get him checked out, and took him to Ms. Yolande Aeaea, a southside veterinarian who worked out of her house. As soon as ‘Snuggles’ had seen Ms. Aeaea, he’d shrieked like a banshee and shot out of the house; the next day, he ran off and was found sitting on the vet’s stoop, myowling angrily. Ariel came at Ms. Aeaea’s call and picked him up, but he just got out and went back.

The cat had gone missing just last night for the third time, and Ariel hadn’t even bothered to wonder where he might have gone off to. She simply gave Michael the address of Ms. Aeaea’s house in Bon Aire and said, “Here’s where he’s going. Go get him, and while you’re at it, figure out why he’s going there and make him stop it.” So Michael had loaded Ariel’s cat-caddy into the passenger seat of his car and headed south.

The traffic came to an even more resolute stop than it had before, and Michael noticed for the first time that there was no attendant traffic coming from the other direction. Although the line of brake lights extended around a curve and out of sight, Michael deduced that there’d been some sort of traffic accident. He sighed and resolved himself to sitting here for the next half hour, putting his car into ‘Park’ and reaching into the back seat for the practice chanter for his highland bagpipes. Before he put the kazoo-like instrument to his lips, however, he noticed movement in his passenger side mirror.

This was a bit odd, because the mounting on the mirror was worn out, so the mirror was always pointed at the ground. Michael glanced over and saw, wet and bedraggled and hurrying past his car, a grey cat, with patches of black and white, and white paws.

Michael put down the chanter and got out of the car quickly but quietly, pulling on his wide-brimmed hat partially to keep the rain off of his head but mostly because he felt naked without it. He crossed over to the side of the road and saw, a few car lengths ahead and receding rapidly, the cat, who very closely matched Ariel’s description of her poor, demented Snuggles (not that Michael could blame any cat for being a little unhinged after being called ‘Snuggles’ for a year). Not knowing what else to do, Michael knelt and said, “Here, kitty, kitty!”

The cat turned briefly and gave Michael a look that said, Buzz off, jerk! more eloquently than any annoyed woman in a seedy bar ever had.

Michael frowned. “Kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty? Nice kitty.”

The cat stopped and looked over its shoulder with a withering look of disdain. Michael could almost hear it, voiced over the cat’s expression like a vittles commercial. I ain’t no kitty, kitty, kitty, the cat seemed to be thinking. It turned and continued its lope through the rain. Michael stood up and followed it; the cat looked over its shoulder and saw this, and picked up its pace. Michael sped up to match, and the cat sped up again, and shortly they were both running flat out down the narrow strip along the side of the bridge.

The cat, having twice as many legs as Michael and one tenth the mass, easily outdistanced him. Michael stopped with a heave of his chest and watched the gray streak pass off the end of the bridge, dart under an immobile car, and into the trees on the other side of the road. “Fine,” Michael said out loud, staring after the cat. “You take the low road; I’ll still be at Ms. Aeaea’s before you, assuming the traffic lets up.”

Approximately half an hour later Michael got past the traffic accident and made his way without further delay to Ms. Aeaea’s neighborhood. It was a fairly ordinary sort of suburban neighborhood, built during a housing mini-boom in the 1980s, home to children and pets. It was clearly not a neighborhood prepared to cope with weirdness, particularly not weirdness of the variety represented by Ms. Aeaea.

Her house was the largest one in the neighborhood, at the crest of a hill on an obtuse corner between streets. The house was surrounded on all sides by a high chain-link fence, through which a tangle of shrubberies and trees seemed to be trying to escape. The house itself was barely visible through the trees and vines. The neighbors on either side of Ms. Aeaea made a point of putting anything that had to be stored in the yard along the boundary with Ms. Aeaea’s, as if a wall of sheds, piles of wood, and lawn-mowing implements could block her out of their world.

Perhaps she’s a large person and they all manufacture cars, Michael thought idly, pulling his own car up in front of her house and getting out. The rain seemed to have gotten tired; instead of actively falling on you, it hung in a thin mist and depended on you to walk through it to get you wet. Michael approached the gate of the fence, which was decorated with a small, hand-painted, cat-shaped wooden sign that said, “Yolande Aeaea, Animal Doctor — Please Come In, But Close the Gate Behind You.” Michael did so, then wound his way through the dense shrubbery to get to the cleared area around the house. An enormous station wagon that was at least fifteen years old sat in front of the house, and a small army of cats huddled under it. Most of them steadfastly ignored Michael as he went up to the front door and knocked.

After a few moments of silence, the door opened, revealing a tall (I knew it!), dark-haired, dusky-skinned woman who appeared to be in her forties. She had a very square jaw and a high forehead, and her eyes had the light-sucking quality of onyx. In short, she was ugly, but it was a refined, strong ugliness that transcended aesthetic standards and somehow made her all the more attractive. Nevertheless, the strong animal smell about her was definitely a turn-off.

“Hello?” the woman said, obviously examining Michael with care. Her voice was low and exotic, as if she were female Bela Lugosi.

“Good afternoon,” Michael said. “Sorry to disturb you, Ms. Aeaea, but I’m here to pick up Ariel Tanring’s cat.”

The woman frowned. “But Snuggles isn’t here,” she said.

“Maybe not, but he’ll be along. If you don’t mind, I’ll wait for him.”

“No, I don’t mind. Won’t you come in?”

“I’d prefer to wait outside,” he said. “Concentrated doses of animal hair do unpleasant things to my sinuses.”

“Very well. Suit yourself.”

She began to close the door, and Michael said, “Quite the feline menagerie you have, here.”

She stopped and looked back at him, with a slight smile. “Thank you,” she said. “You are a cat-lover?”

“Only in the most platonic sense,” Michael said, with a shrug. “It seems strange to see them clustered together like they are under your car, there. I always see them as basically solitary.”

“Well, they are,” Ms. Aeaea replied. “But even the most solitary animals need to learn to be civilized and live with others. Even if it takes their whole lifetime.”

“Is that why those are sentenced to huddle under the car in the rain?” Michael said.

“Precisely. When they can learn to behave, they’ll be allowed to come in.”

“I seem to remember a little proverb that says, ‘Never try to teach a pig to sing —’

“I know the one. ‘…It just wastes your time and annoys the pig.’ There’s a lot of truth to that. But cats and pigs are rather different, you know. I used to raise pigs, as a matter of fact. I had quite a large farm of them.”

“That wasn’t around here, though, was it?”

She looked at him, vaguely baffled. “What do you mean?”

He shrugged. “I just got the impression that you were an immigrant of some variety.”

She smiled. “How very perceptive of you. As a matter of fact, I am. But the farm I was referring to was here, in the United States.”

“New York state, somewhere?”

This time she frowned. “I think you have the advantage of me, sir,” she said. “Would you mind telling me who you are?”

He handed her a card. “My name’s Macbeth. Ms. Tanring has contracted my services to discern why mad, impetuous Snuggles has taken to frequenting your doorstep.”

“What are you, some sort of animal psychologist?”

“No, simply a troubleshooter.”

“What led you to pick out New York state in particular?”

“Simply that Snuggles’ odd behavior suggested that perhaps the two of you might have some previous history. Since Ms. Tanring found him in New York state, I assumed that to be where the two of you had known each other.”

Ms. Aeaea smiled. “As I said, perceptive.”

“Thank you.”

“As a matter of fact, Snuggles used to be my cat. Of course, I knew him as Richard.”

“Richard? Odd name for a cat. Do you always give your pets human names?”

“Certainly, and why not? They may lack social graces, but they are every bit as intelligent as you or I.”

“I suspect that you are considerably more intelligent than I am,” said Michael. “A sorceress of your obvious skill would have to be.”

“Mrow,” said a pitiful voice from the gate. Michael turned and saw Snuggles (a.k.a. Richard) sitting on the other side of the fence, dripping wet, covered with red clay mud, and looking thoroughly miserable. His bearing also suggested that he was quite startled to see Michael again so soon.

“Now don’t you feel foolish for running?” said Michael, opening the gate for the cat. “I would have brought you straight here in the relative comfort of my car.”

The cat glared up at Michael with narrowed eyes, then stalked through the gate and up to Ms. Aeaea. He plunked himself down onto his haunches, and with an accusatory tone, said, “Myow!”

Ms. Aeaea looked down at the cat and nodded. “Hello, Richard,” she said. Then turning back to Michael, she said, “What was that you said, about a sorceress?”

“I said that a sorceress of your obvious skill would have to be quite intelligent.”

“I thought that’s what you said, but I wanted to make sure. For a moment, I thought I may have imagined it. Do you practice the craft?”

“Sorcery? I’m afraid not.”

“Then how did you know?”

“Well, by your pseudonym, of course. Aeaea was the island home of Circe, the Greek sorceress who would trap errant or knavish sailors and turn them into swine.”

“Actually, she would have said they were already swine who’d been turned into humans,” Ms. Aeaea said. “She just brought their true natures to the fore.”

“So you’ve taken social dropouts and changed them into cats,” Michael said, “presumably to teach them to be more civilized. Is that correct?”

“In a nutshell,” Ms. Aeaea said.

“Yes, well, I’m afraid that Richard has a long way to go in that respect. For being unable to speak, he still managed to be astoundingly rude to me on the Huguenot bridge.”

“Mrow!” said Snuggles/Richard.

“He’s always been a problem,” Ms. Aeaea said. “He ran away constantly when we lived in New York. Then one day, he ran away and didn’t come back. I assumed he’d been killed on the freeway. I was surprised but very pleased to find him here in Richmond.”

“Running from the law, are you perhaps?”

Ms. Aeaea laughed. “Do you know that an idiot of a police detective thought I was murdering social misfits to feed my cats? What a notion!” She looked over at a large orange furball huddled under the car. “Know better now, don’t you?” she said to it.

The orange cat managed somehow, even without the appropriate facial muscles, to scowl.

“See here, Ms. Aeaea, this can’t continue. While I’m fairly sure there’s no law on the books making it illegal to turn men into cats, I’m also quite certain that there would be if people of a legislative bent knew that it was an issue. Furthermore, what you’re doing is still kidnapping.”

“Small minds always try to interfere,” said Ms. Aeaea. “It’s true that my children find it unpleasant, but discipline never comes easy. When they finally learn the joy and peace of mind that comes from working for the collective good, when they’re finally ready to become human in the truest sense, they thank me, Mr. Macbeth. As you will.” She retreated into her house.

“I don’t like the sound of that,” said Michael.

“This card you’ve so graciously handed me is all I need,” her voice continued from inside, somewhere. “Once you’ve had as much practice as I have, it’s a very simple spell.”

“Er, excuse me, Ms. Aeaea,” Michael called through the open door, “but I fail to see how turning me into a cat serves the collective good. For that matter, kidnapping and transubstantiating a police detective is hardly civil.”

“Survival,” replied Ms. Aeaea, coming back to the doorway with a small ceramic bowl. In it was a black and oily slime, into which she had sprinkled the torn up shreds of Michael’s card. “My work is for the good of humanity, and in order to do that work, I must be unimpeded. Do you have any particular way you’d like your possessions disposed of? Given to a relative, for example?”

“No, thank you,” Michael said.

“You seem remarkably calm for someone about to be turned into a cat. It’s an admirable quality. Most men, when they realize what’s happening to them, become quite flustered.”

“I’ve always been very clear-headed in a crisis,” Michael said.

Invoco mutatem mutatium…” she began to chant, closing her eyes.

“Ms. Aeaea, I think you should know —” Michael said.

Artem magicam me da…

“— that you won’t find it —”

Hunc felei domestico verte!

The black slime ignited suddenly, burning itself and Michael’s card away into nothing but oily smoke in less than two seconds. Ms. Aeaea opened her eyes, and jumped back a bit when she saw Michael standing before her, unaffected.

“As I was saying,” Michael said, “I’m highly resistant to supernatural influences.”

“Oh dear,” said Ms. Aeaea. “That complicates things a bit.”

“Things were easier in the old days,” Michael said. “If I were Ulysses or Lancelot, I could threaten to lop off your head until you promised to undo all this nonsense.”

“I count the blessings of the modern world every day,” Ms. Aeaea said. “So, we are at an impasse, then.”

“Not quite,” said Michael.

“On the contrary,” said Ms. Aeaea, “we are. Perhaps I can’t perform my magic on you, but what can you possibly do to me? Call the police? They’ll assume you’re a lunatic. Large and imposing as you are, I sincerely doubt that you seriously mean to threaten me with bodily harm. It’s undignified.”

“I can make a few phone calls to New York, or to the FBI. I don’t have to mention cats at all, simply the disappearance of a police detective.”

“That would be an inconvenience at most. If I have to, I can simply move again. I have disappeared many times, I can do it again if I need to.”

“I guess you’ve got me, there,” said Michael. “Gosh, I certainly underestimated you. Whatever shall I do. Alas, I am defeated.” Looking down at Snuggles/Richard, he said, “Hey, fuzzy, you want a lift back to Ariel’s house? I’ll tell her to give you real people-type-food instead of that tic-tac-toe shaped crud.”

Snuggles/Richard looked up at Ms. Aeaea, looked back at Michael, then padded off to Michael’s car with a resigned sigh. “Good day, Ms. Aeaea,” Michael said, tipped his hat, and went back to his car. “You know,” he said to Snuggles/Richard as he opened the door, “you really don’t have it so bad. Imagine if Ariel had decided to have you fixed.”

“Mrow!” snarled Snuggles/Richard.

Ms. Aeaea smiled smugly, and watched from her doorway as Michael piled into the heap of steel and fiberglass he generously referred to as his car and drove off.

She was no longer standing in the doorway fifteen minutes later, when he drove up in front of her house a second time, pulled a pair of pliers out of his glove compartment, and used them to steal the wooden “Yolande Aeaea — Animal Doctor” sign from her fence.

# # #

Michael finished the last bar of ‘Scots Wha Hae’ on his pipes and exhaled deeply, smiling in satisfaction at the sound of his landlady banging on the floor of her house, above him. “Just you wait,” he said to the ceiling of his basement apartment, “some day I’ll move out to the West End, and you’ll miss me.”

A peculiar keening sound came to him in the relative quiet of the early morning, some sort of an animal cry from outside that had been drowned out by his pipes. He put the pipes down gently in their reserved chair, pulled a robe on over his pajamas, and went to the front door. Opening it, he discovered a large, black cat sitting on his porch and glaring at him.

“Ms. Aeaea!” he said. “What a pleasant surprise! Come in, come in!” He opened the door wider, and the black cat oozed around his legs and into the apartment. He closed the door and followed the cat into the main room of the tiny apartment. “Can I get you something, a saucer of milk perhaps?”

The cat hissed loudly, extending her claws.

“None of that,” Michael said. “In your current state you’re somewhat vulnerable. I take it you’re here because you’re unhappy about the current state of things?”

“Mrowr!” said the cat.

“Now you know why Richard was so disagreeable. Have you had any hairballs yet?”

The cat hissed again, then said, “Myow!”

“When I told you that I didn’t practice the craft, I neglected to mention that I know a few people who do, and that one or two of them owe me a few favors. I’m sorry to have vandalized that lovely wooden sign, but the relatively small amount of material required for the spell means that I have quite a nice reserve of it should I need to have the spell cast again.”

“Mrow!”

“Here’s what I propose, Ms. Aeaea, and I suggest you accept it. I shall return you to human condition and drive you home; once you’re there, you’ll undo all of the shape-changing you’ve inflicted, and you’ll refrain from ever doing it again. I’ll be checking up on you, and I’ll know. And if you ever move away from Richmond, well, I’ll assume that you’re up to your old tricks again and have my friends cast the spell. As I understand it, it’ll work no matter how far away you run.”

The cat hissed.

“Don’t like that, eh? Very well, you can keep all four legs indefinitely. Let me just go call the pound and have them pick you up. I’m not allowed pets in the apartment, I’m afraid.”

“Mrowr!”

“What’s that?”

“Mrowr!” The cat’s tail drooped, and she nodded her head.

“I take it that means you agree to my terms?”

The cat nodded again.

“Wise choice, Ms. Aeaea. Wait here, and I’ll get the items to undo the spell. You might want to get under the blanket on the sofa, there, to preserve your modesty.”

The cat glared at him, but jumped up onto the sofa and worked her way under the blanket.

# # #

“Hello, Macbeth Paranormal Consultations. This is Michael Macbeth speaking. How may I help you?”

“Mr. Macbeth, this is Ariel Tanring.”

“Ah, Ms. Tanring! How are you?”

“Mr. Macbeth, about Snuggles…”

“Yes?”

“Well, um, he seems to have changed into a … er, a … naked man.”

“Ah. That’d be Richard. I suspect that he won’t be running off to Ms. Aeaea’s house any more. Your problem is solved, then. I’ll send my bill along to you in the mail.”

“But wait a minute!”

“What?”

“What am I supposed to do with him?”

“What you do in your own house with a naked man is none of my business, Ms. Tanring. That’s not a matter I feel qualified to consult on. Good day.”

The End
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