Jimmy threw a handful of dust at the girl and shouted again. “Tanya is skinny skinny skinny.”
Although the epithet was appropriate, Tanya was thin as a rail, it was the kind of insult a black pot might hurl at a kettle. At eleven years Jimmy showed his age: he was scrawny, like a sickly rake, except at the point where his belly distended through his ragged t-shirt; his lips were thin and his eyes were dull; his skin was puce-coloured and filthy. As with far too many boys in Fairbanks, it was difficult to tell where dirt ended and disease began.
Tanya stared down at Jimmy but didn’t reply to his taunts. His words didn’t hurt as much today as they did on other days. Today she felt distanced from him, as if she was from another world that he couldn’t touch.
Two blocks from Tanya’s home Jimmy made a left so that he could take a short cut to his home in the Projects. Tanya turned right, and began walking toward the other side of the railway tracks. Her mother was waiting for her on the stoop of the family’s three story brick townhouse. Normally, that was a bad sign because it meant Mum wanted to talk about something, like grades. This time Tanya wasn’t so sure. Her mother didn’t even notice her approach: she sat crouched forward with her head between her hands, looking down at her feet. In her left hand she held a rumpled, blue envelope.
“Mum.” Tanya asked tentatively when she reached the bottom step. Her mother hadn’t even noticed her arrival.
Tanya’s mother looked up and wearily said, “Hi Pumpkin.” As an afterthought she added, “How was school?”
“Were you on time?”
“Did any of the Hootch boys bother you?”
Mum sighed, “What did he do?”
Mum let it drop. At least she wasn’t crying anymore. Tanya said, “Come inside, Mum. I’ll help you make dinner.”
Dad arrived two hours later, at 6:00 pm, which was early. Mum greeted him at the door. She hugged him until he gently pushed her away. He said, “That’s enough Rhonda.” He wasn’t annoyed by Mum’s excessive affection, just tired.
Dad walked into the kitchen. He silently stared at the bare table – a small plate of potatoes, and some salmon. He asked, “What’s for dinner?”
Tanya braced herself. Dad could see what was for dinner. But he wasn’t asking a question, he was saying how little there was. He always did that, because where he came from in California there was lots. In Fairbanks there was never enough.
Mum was in no mood to fight. “You’ve got some mail.” She handed Dad the blue envelope she’d been crying over earlier. Dad looked at the envelope. He noticed it was opened but said nothing. He handed the letter back to Mum and said, “Read it to me.”
Mum whispered, “Tanya’s here.”
Dad said, “Read it anyway”. He didn’t lower his voice. Mum read,
A list of recruiting centres …
Mum stopped reading.
“What’s a GM visa, Dad?” Tanya asked.
“Your father’s genes have been modified to make them better” Mum replied.
“When? Why wasn’t I told?”, Tanya exclaimed.
“The changes happened hundreds of years ago, pumpkin” Mum replied. “Your father inherited the improvements from his Mum and Dad.”
“And you inherited them from me”, Dad added gruffly.
Mum raised her voice so that she could speak over Dad, “Your genes don’t matter right now, Tanya. What matters is that your father has to join the army for a few years.”
“Do we have to move?” Tanya asked.
Dad answered, “Yes. I’ll be training at Fort Palin, near Inuvik. That’s where they send all the conscripts.”
“What about the war?” Tanya asked her father. “Do you think you’ll have to fight in the war?”
Mum spoke with an outdoor voice, “There’s no war! That’s just a border dispute over Lake Athabasca. I’m sure it’ll be over by the time your father’s training is done.”
Dad picked up his food and went to the living room. That’s what he did when he was angry but too tired to fight. Tanya went with him. Mum stayed in the kitchen. She hardly ate.
When Dad finished his dinner he went to the kitchen to talk to Mum. He wasn’t angry anymore. Tanya pretended to sleep by the stove, but was really listening to her parents.
Dad said, “Rhonda. I’m going to go back to Long Beach. I’d like you and Tanya to come with me.”
Dad looked at Mum. She looked away. She said, “Cody, draft dodging is too dangerous. If you get caught you’ll be shot or enslaved. And think of Tanya.”
Dad looked into the living room.
Mum said, “Do you think two years in the army is that bad? I bet the pay is the same as you get now.” Mum was speaking quietly. Tanya rolled over so that she could hear better.
Dad replied, “Sure. Soldier’s make more than labourers. If they live.”
Mum started to cry.
Mum spoke first, “Did you do your homework?”
“No. I couldn’t think last night. Anyway, I have until Monday.”
“What’s your assignment?”
“Its like show and tell. I have to pretend I’m a visitor from an historical time and place.”
“Do you have any ideas?”
Tanya shrugged, “Miss Langan said I should talk about the Arctic War.”
“Don’t talk about war, sweetheart. Do something cultural instead. Why don’t you talk about the Movies?”
Tanya liked that idea a lot more than talking about some ancient battle. “That sounds great, Mum, but I need a theme.”
“What do movies make you think of pumpkin?”
Tanya thought about the fights between Mum and Dad over how there was never enough food.
“Lots”, she said.
“What do you mean?”
“They had lots of everything in Movie Times. I’m want to talk about that.”
Mum leaned over and gently clasped Tanya’s hands, “How about we study tomorrow by seeing a movie?”
For the first time in weeks both Rhonda and her daughter smiled.
Tanya, though quiet, was engaged. Every once in a while she would make a comment about something, but otherwise was content to look everywhere and say nothing.
They arrived at the library on time for the noon matinee. Today’s movie was “Harry Potter and the Temple of the Phoenix”. The library always played this one because it had lots of copies, so it didn’t matter so much if one wore out.
Tanya was bursting with excitement. Despite herself Rhonda was as well. It had been years since she had seen a movie, and she had never once seen a Harry Potter.
The theatre was part of a Victorian Revival building that had been annexed to the Central Reference Library a generation earlier. Its entrance was guarded by a pair of marble dragons, which sat on either side of a grand staircase. Its atrium was illuminated by a giant electric light that hung from a domed ceiling. The theatre itself had an orchestra pit and two terraces. The staircase walls were painted with giant frescoes of important moments in the military history of the Republic: the battle of Bear Lake, the lifting of the Siege of Barrow, and the sack of Burnaby. The second balcony was closed entirely while artists worked on the latest addition to the frescoes, a memorial to the Hay River Massacre. It was a painting of the young Joan Smith dying on the bow of the Mackenzie Dawn. That was the event that started the current war.
The movie began.
For both Tanya and her mother the next hour was a wonderful blur.
When the torches were lit for the intermission, Tanya became disoriented. The Dementors, Hogwarts, the magic – it was all so vivid. The library auditorium seemed flat, dull and unreal.
The concession stand was decorated with mirrors. All of the walls and pillars had mirrors as well, which made the lobby look huge because every where you looked you saw infinity. Tanya was teased so much about her body she never looked at herself in the mirror. Why would she want to see how ugly she was? She tried not to look at herself now, but it was difficult.
While Tanya stood in line, staring at her feet, a child’s voice said, “Miss. Miss.” A little girl, no more than seven, tugged at the hem of her skirt. Tanya looked up. The tugging was being done by a beautiful Yupik girl – she was well fed and had ruddy red skin. Her black hair was tied into two pigs tails that stuck up like antennas. The child asked Tanya, “Miss, are you Hermione?”
Tanya looked from the girl to millions of reflections of the Hermione.
The Yupik child burst out, “You’re beautiful!” The little girl was so embarrassed by her words that she rolled away, but the words she had just spoken did not leave with her. Tanya wouldn’t let them: she had always wanted to be beautiful.
A woman wearing a puffy coat made of muskrat fur rushed over to Tanya. She bent down on one knee and raised Tanya’s chin with her right hand, and said, “That Eskimo child is right. You look just like Emma Watson. Are you one? I haven’t seen any since the pogroms.” Tanya edged away, but there was nowhere to hide in a room full of mirrors. The woman continued, “Never mind. Of course you are. Why don’t you read this. There’s an address on the back if you want to talk.” The woman handed Tanya a pamphlet. There was a black and white picture of the magician Hermione on the cover. It had the title, “The Goddesses of Movie Times.”
Tanya took the pamphlet from the woman, and rushed back to her seat. Mum didn’t ask why Tanya didn’t return with a drink.
In the last few moments before the movie continued Tanya began read a story from her pamphlet with the title “Were wizards real?”
Mum noticed but said nothing.
The moment the movie ended Rhonda threw a hat and scarf over her daughter, hustled them both out of the library and onto the street. Despite the cost, they took a carriage home.
For the first few minutes of their journey they were both silent. Tanya was thinking about how Hogwarts was her true home, and wondered if there was a portal to it in Fairbanks. She once excitedly made the driver stop the carriage when she mistook a huge, unkempt trapper for Hagrid.
Rhonda brooded, uncertain how to proceed.
Tanya broke the silence, “Mum, am I Hermione?”
“Dear heart, someone hundreds of years ago altered your genes so that you look like Hermione. But no, you’re not her. Hermione is not real. She’s just a character in a story.”
“But what about Emma Watson? She was real. Am I her? Or a clone of her? Or something else?”
“Pumpkin, movie stars are never real. They’re myths we create about famous actors.”
“Why would someone want to look like Hermione?”
“Because she was beautiful.”
Tanya tried to suppress a smile; she did not succeed, “But I’m skinny.”
“In Movie Times people thought it was beautiful to be slender. They considered it a sign of health and self-discipline.”
“What do you mean, self-discipline?”
“Back then there was so much of everything that some people had too much. They would eat and eat until they grew so fat they were ugly.”
Tanya remembered how Dad looked at his empty plate.
Too much and not enough.
When they were almost done cleaning up dinner Tanya broke the silence. “Mum, I’ve been thinking about my presentation for school. Can I practice on you?”
Mum said, “Of course, dear.”
They put away their towels, drained the sink and retired to the living room.
Mum sat down in the big chair Dad always used. Tanya gathered her thoughts while she composed herself in front of the wood stove. She had learned from the Harry Potter movie that she wasn’t an ugly duckling. If this was California in Movie Times everyone would think that she was as beautiful as a star. She had to let her classmates know this! But how?
Tanya began, “In Movie Times make-believe was real, and because we make-believe wonderful things everything was better back then.”
Mum squirmed in her chair.
Tanya continued, “They had lots of everything in Movie Times. Not just clothes and wagons, but even lots of fresh water. They had machines that could create water out of air.” She took a big inhalation. “And of course they had lots of Movie Stars.”
Tanya stopped speaking. That was as all she had.
Mum carefully asked, “Tanya, what did you say about make-believe?” The simple question confused Tanya. Tanya had gone into a trance when she recited her speech. She didn’t remember any of it, what she had said, what Mum’s reactions were, nothing. She said, “Let me practice some more, and do some research. We can do it again tomorrow. OK?”
Tanya went to bed, where she dreamed of eating all the smoked fish she wanted, and having lemonade and sugar cookies for desert.
Mum was hungry. She had scrimped on dinner because the cost of the carriage home had been steep. She opened the icebox. All they had was a small piece of dried salmon, some old potatoes, stale bread and sour butter. She left it all for Dad.
On Monday morning Tanya was excited about how she was going to tell her story. She knew that if she could make her classmates understand that she wasn’t just different she was special, like a princess from a far away land, they’d be her friends.
Rhonda looked at her child. Tanya had never been this enthusiastic about going to school. Had she ever been this enthusiastic about anything? Tanya’s excitement took the edge off her mother’s nerves, but it was impossible not to worry. They had rehearsed the presentation a dozen times last night, and each time Tanya’s words were different.
Although she was shunned by her family, Rhonda Anderson was still treated as a highly ranked noble by the teachers at her daughter’s school. When she arrived with her daughter in a carriage, which they had taken to ensure that Tanya was unmuddied, a great fuss was made by the principal. Rhonda was invited to watch all of the presentations. Although she was anxious about her presence upsetting her daughter, she agreed to stay.
The school had three classrooms for three different age groups. All the children had all gathered in the biggest classroom, which was the one normally used by the youngest children. Tanya’s teacher was a middle-aged Asian refugee who had migrated to Alaska across the pole. Her English was fluent, but accented, and precisely spoken. This gave her an appearance of harshness not warranted by her otherwise stoic and gentle manner. She was dressed in a blue uniform, white top and blue tie: an adult version of what the children wore. The school bell rang; the children settled down.
The teacher asked, “Who would like to go first?”
Tanya’s arm shot up. Her teacher was surprised. Tanya was a reticent child who never volunteered for anything. She said, “Very good, Tanya. You can go first. What is your historical period?”
“What is your theme?”
“I expect you to explain what you mean by that.”
Tanya nodded vigorously but wondered why you’d need to explain the idea of lots to anyone.
Tanya took her place at the front of the classroom, stood up straight and smoothed her skirt with her hands. The teacher said, “Begin”.
Tanya began. “My speech is about my pretend visit to Los Angeles, California in Movie Times.”
Tanya mustered all of her effort to look at her classmates. She wouldn’t go blank the way she did when practicing with Mum. They were all looking at her. Tanya’s heart was racing. She took a deep breath to calm herself down. She began, “In Movie Times there was lots of everything. There was lots of lemons and sugar, and crayons came in over one hundred colours.”
Tanya nervously inhaled. She exhaled, “The streets were full of metal wagons with tires made of air. Every family had one, some had two or three, so that children could drive too. At first I was scared to drive, then one day I drove from Hollywood to Santa Monica on a highway. It was fun.”
Tanya paused to look at her classmates. She had their complete attention. She smiled as she spoke her next words, “Even school was fun in Movie Times. There were no tests because everyone owned a box that contained all knowledge. If you wanted to know something, all you had to do was ask your box. It was easier if you could type, but you didn’t have to, most of the time the knowledge box could understand your spoken words.”
Tanya’s audience had disappeared. She was entirely in her head again. This time, she noticed. Pay attention, Tanya, she thought. This can change your life.
Tanya forced her perceptions to come back into the room. In a bold voice she said, “One of the best things about back then was all the Movie Stars. There was Halley who was the goddess of beauty. She was thin and had big breasts, so everyone liked her.”
Tanya looked at her classmates, just to know she could. She continued, “Not all of these goddesses were good. Some were terrible. The goddesses Paris and Lindsey and Britney used to kill their boyfriends, after they kissed them.”
“My Mum thinks they still do.” That was Jimmy Hootch. For once he wasn’t teasing. He was just saying. Tanya felt encouraged. She said, “I think so too”. Mum cringed.
Tanya’s presentation reached its climax, “On my trip to Hollywood I met my favorite movie star, Emma. That’s her regular name. Her Greek name is Hermione. I liked her because …” Tanya stumbled on the words because Emma was just like me. Tanya couldn’t say that. Instead she said, “Hermione was one of the perfume goddesses.”
“What did she look like?” The question was asked by Peter, one of the older Hootch boys. Today he had a large bruise around his left eye. Just like the one his brother Jimmy had last week.
“Let me tell you” Tanya said proudly. She opened up the pamphlet she had been given at the Central Reference Library, and began to read in a loud, steady voice, “The goddess Emma was pretty and thin and had small breasts, a pert butt and a button nose.”
“Tanya, did you see the Harry Potter movie on Saturday? You look like the magician Hermione.” The question was asked by one of the older boys who Tanya didn’t know.
“Yeah, you do.” Everyone who had seen any of the Harry Potters agreed.
Even though Tanya was afraid of expressing her emotions, a smile spread over her face. She had done it! Now they all knew. She wasn’t an ugly duckling because she was skinny. She was as beautiful as a movie star.
“Why don’t you see if anyone has questions?”, the teacher prompted.
“I have a question. I do.”
“Tanya, what was the best part of Movie Times?”
Calvin was the oldest of the Hootch boys. He was quieter than his other brothers, as if age had made him too tired to be angry. He got more black eyes than the rest of his brothers combined, even though he never fought.
Tanya replied, “I think that the best thing about back then was that no one ever starved, because if you got hungry and had no food the Government gave you stamps that you could eat.”
Calvin’s eyes went wide. Tanya looked at the rest of her classmates. All of their eyes were wide too: their next meals were never guaranteed. They had all gone hungry.
“Are there any more questions?” the teacher asked.
There were no more questions. The children had learned all about lots.
This is the bleakest story I have ever written, but I hope one of the most powerful. It is a reflection on libertarianism versus freedom.
This establishment is governed by Private Law.
Caitlin looked at the grimy notice. It was the last thing she saw before she entered the foyer from the stairs, and the first thing that guests saw when they entered the co-op from outside. She turned to face the cell. Its right part was defined by the slope of the stairwell. This was where the prisoner, a lean, ragged man, was now sitting. Although he was barely 40 years of age he had grey, thin hair. His skin was taut and sallow; his parched lips were white around the edges. The wall facing him was pocked by metal studs that had once been used to hang bicycles. In the far corner there was a rusty, galvanized bucket of water. The bucket was used for both drinking and washing, first one then the other. The cell had two light sources: a skylight, six floors above at the top of the spiraling stair-well, and the stained-glass windows that ringed the co-op’s entrance, towards which the cell faced. It was twilight; the setting sun was shining through the stained glass, casting cheerful red and blue shadows onto the cell’s peeling, yellow walls.
Caitlin addressed the prisoner with a quiet voice, “Here’s some left-overs. I’m sorry I couldn’t bring more, but you know how my uncle gets upset when I feed you.” She was tall for her age, and lank. Her simple, grey woolen clothes hung loosely on her stretched frame. Her thick, dark hair had been recently washed, and was carefully braided. She moved tentatively, as if she had not yet mastered either her body or the uncertain world through which it moved.
The prisoner arranged his chains so that he could turn to face his visitor. He was not used to speaking, so his voice was broken and gruff when he said, “What did you bring me?” He spoke with eager desperation. The young woman tilted the bowl she held in her hand so that he could see its contents: several pieces of beef gristle, a small scoop of potatoes and some greyish-green beans.
The prisoner carefully cleared some rotten scraps from the wooden tray he used as both a table and plate. He pushed the wooden tray through the small space between the barred gate and the floor. The young woman transferred the food onto the tray, and then pushed the tray toward the prisoner. The laden tray passed easily into the cell except for a tiny piece of potato, which stuck to the bottom bar of the gate. The prisoner received the food gratefully; he finished eating it in a moment, and then ate the small piece of potato that had stuck to the gate.
When the prisoner finished eating, he replaced the rotten scraps he’d earlier put aside, and carefully placed the food tray by the head of the woven mat he used for a bed. He wiped his utensils, a wooden spoon and a small, sharp knife.
“Who gave you that knife?” Caitlin asked.
“Do you think she’s changed her mind about you?” the young woman asked hopefully.
The prisoner looked at the pouch that held the knife, and then up at the young woman. His eyes were yellow and foggy, so foggy that Caitlin wondered if he could even see her.
“How did your trip go?”, the prisoner asked.
The young woman took a deep breath before replying. The inhalation straightened her slightly stooped shoulders. “The first time they turned me away. I’m too young to launch an appeal. The second time Mrs. Simpson came with me.”
“God bless that woman.”
“Didn’t she vote against you?” Caitlin asked.
“She abstained. If it had made a difference, she’d have voted for me. I know that. But … tell me what happened, child.”
Caitlin handed the prisoner the form letter she had received from the Office of the Procurator General. He pushed it back to her, and said gruffly, “Read it.” She did so,
The co-operative at 14 Cyclades Ave., Juneau, Alaska is entitled to imprison hoarders under the terms of the War Measures Act. Penal facilities must conform to the incarceration standards outlined in the Constitution and they are subject to periodic audits. No sentence can exceed 5 years without a review by the Third Circuit Court of Greater Alaska.
Cruel and unusual punishment is forbidden.
When she was finished reading the letter Caitlin added in a less formal voice, “The man we met said the Procurator has very little authority over Private Law.”
“What about an audit?”
“That’s what the man told us to do. He said that Mrs. Simpson has to set up a meeting with the Procurator. Even though he doesn’t have authority he appoints auditors, who do. It only costs $5.”
“Is $5 too much? Should it cost less?”
The prisoner looked at the Caitlin for several breaths before he spoke. “The meeting shouldn’t cost anything, child. It’s his job to see you.”
“Should I refuse to pay him?”
“No!” The prisoner spoke too loudly. “You have no choice, Caitlin. You have to pay. Whatever he asks.” He continued with a quiet, weary voice. “Thank you. Thank you so much for doing this. If I ever get the money Mrs. Ellison stole from me, I’ll pay you back. I’ll do anything you want. I promise.”
Caitlin tugged at the loose thread which threatened to unravel the lace which trimmed the otherwise rough fabric of her home-made skirt, nervously shuffled her feet but said nothing; she did not know how to reply.
The prisoner continued, “Make sure the audit happens as soon as possible. Can you? You will?”
Caitlin hesitated before responding. “I’ll do my best.” She inhaled deeply before she replied, “Dan …”
“Don’t use my name! If someone heard you, you could be punished too!”
The intensity of his voice caused her to take a step back. When she recovered her balance Caitlin said, “If Mrs. Simpson hears something from the Procurator I’ll let you know.
“She can tell me herself.”
“She won’t talk to you. She’s too afraid.”
The front door began to open with a loud, wooden creak. Caitlin rushed up the stairs to her apartment on the second floor before anyone saw her.
Caitlin knocked twice on Mrs. Simpson’s door.
“Please come in.”
Caitlin poked her head half-way through the door. She said, “I only wanted to ask …”
Mrs. Simpson gently, but firmly, pulled Caitlin into her apartment. She said, “Caitlin, we have to be very careful.”
Caitlin was unfazed. She said, “I just wanted to know how your meeting with the Procurator went. If you’re busy …”
“He approved the audit.”
“That’s wonderful news!”
Mrs. Simpson shook her head mournfully. “No. He wants $100.”
That was as much as Caitlin’s father paid his man for an entire year’s service.
Mrs. Simpson continued, “I want to help poor Daniel, but I don’t have that kind of money. Your father is influential. Maybe …” She didn’t conclude the sentence because she didn’t know what Caitlin’s absent father could do.
“Mrs. Simpson, my father is in California. You know that.” Caitlin spoke respectfully.
“I also know that he is a very careful person, who loves you dearly. I’m certain he made provisions for an emergency.”
“Is this an emergency?”
“For Daniel it is. Have you seen the knife Mrs. Ellison gave him?”
Caitlin recalled how Daniel looked at that knife. She wondered what she could do to stop him from killing himself.
The day before Caitlin’s father left for California, she met him at his ship. He had been living there for several days already. The moment she arrived, her father turned his back on he was doing and clasped her hands in an uncharacteristically gentle manner. Caitlin reluctantly let him. She was angry that her father was leaving her, but now, just hours before his departure, that emotion was overwhelmed by sadness and fear. They walked hand-in-hand along the wharf, saying nothing as they gazed out into the Gulf of Alaska, Caitlin clung more and more tightly to her father’s hand.
They sat down side by side on an old green bench that looked out over Gulf. Caitlin’s father said,“This is the wrong time for me to go away. You’re too young and the world is … Never mind that. I want you to know that I don’t want to leave you. I’m going because I have no choice. My Patron …” Caitlin hugged his arm; her tears moistened his shirt.
After a few moments Caitlin’s father gently extracted himself and put a key around his daughter’s neck. He interrupted the embrace not because he was unsentimental, but rather because he was consoled by doing his duty, and wanted to get started doing it. He placed his hands firmly, but lightly, onto his daughter’s shoulders, and said, “Look at me dear heart. Do you know where I keep my money?
“The Second Bank of Alaska.”
“Where is it located?”
“At Main and Palin. It opens at 10 am …”
“Very good.” He hugged her tightly and then squatted so that his eyes were parallel with hers. “Caitlin, do you see the number on this key?” He placed her hands around the key he’d just given her. “It is the number of the box this key will open. If you ever need money, but are afraid to ask your Aunt, or anyone, go to the Second Bank of Alaska. Say that you are my daughter. Ask for box 256. But only in an emergency.”
“What kind of emergency?”
“Not something small, like a leaky faucet. Something big, like a threat against your life or property. If you get confused, act like me.”
“Dad, why are you giving this to me and not to Aunt Katherine?”
“I’ve made other arrangements with your Aunt.” He looked out over the Gulf and rubbed his hand through his black, oiled hair. “Of course I have. But …” He rubbed his forehead, which left an almost translucent black smear “… I don’t trust her husband.”
“You mean Uncle Jim?”
He couldn’t bear to speak further; he just nodded his head.
Caitlin’s attention returned to the present. She looked up at Mrs. Simpson. “My father left me some money. Maybe its enough.”
Caitlin had never been inside the Second Bank of Alaska, so did not know what to expect. The bank was located in a featureless, squat building made of new, red brick. On the inside it appeared much bigger than it did from the street, because its top floors were taken up by a dome instead of offices. There was a huge painting on the dome of two men touching fingers, one had beard, the other was clean shaven.
The moment Caitlin identified herself to the guard at the bank’s entrance, the Manager was alerted. The Manager, a fat old man in a black suit, escorted her to the safety deposit box. The security guard, who had a waxed mustache and was armed with a long, slender sword, walked several steps behind them. Caitlin wondered if the man was guarding her or the Manager.
The Manager claimed to be a good friend of Caitlin’s father, and inquired several times after his health. Caitlin told the Manager that she had not heard a word from her father since he left to explore California 11 months earlier, but that didn’t stop the Manager from asking the same question again.
They reached a thick metal door that had a metal wheel for a handle. The security guard stepped forward and with some effort turned the wheel. The door rolled open. Caitlin entered the vault, unescorted; it was full of metal drawers. The Manager said farewell. The guard stayed behind, but turned his back to her and guarded the door.
Caitlin quickly found Box 256. It was empty except for a small block of gold and a stack of five dollar bills. She knew that the money was enough for the Procurator, but hesitated before taking it. Although this was an emergency for Daniel it was not an emergency for her. She wondered what would happen if she used up all of the money and she had an emergency herself. She didn’t know what to do, so she attempted to emulate her father. She removed $50 but left the gold and the rest of the bills.
“Did you get the money?” Mrs. Simpson asked, the moment Caitlin had safely entered the apartment.
Caitlin silently placed the small stack of bills on the table.
Mrs. Simpson counted the money and then said, “Is this all?”
Caitlin froze. Mrs. Simpson understood. “Let’s hope $50 is enough.”
Mrs. Simpson began to put the money away; Caitlin scooped it up before she could. Caitlin said, “I’ll pay the Procurator myself.”
Mrs. Simpson looked away; her tired eyes were ringed with dark circles. She said, “I guess you will.”
They went to the Procurator’s office the next day. They had intended to walk along West Sixth, but it had rained during the night, so that way was too muddy. Caitlin insisted on hiring a cab. Like tourists, they took a scenic route to City Hall that followed the harbour. They were dressed like they were going to Church, in bonnets and flowered dresses: Caitlin’s was white with red roses and a small cherry red handbag; Mrs. Simpson’s dress was her Sunday best, dark blue velvet decorated with small white nicotiana flowers that that looked like polka-dots.
The Procurator’s office was in the back of an old mansion, which shared a garden with City Hall. Although Caitlin and Mrs. Simpson had no appointment they were expected.
The Procurator wore a vaguely military uniform. He had a small, neatly trimmed grey beard and fastidious manner. He acknowledged Mrs. Simpson without rising; he gave Caitlin a dismissive glance. Speaking to Mrs. Simpson, he said, “Do you have the money?” He did not offer them a seat, which struck Caitlin as surprisingly rude behaviour from someone who dressed like a gentleman.
The Procurator arched an eyebrow when Caitlin stepped forward and handed him an envelope. Although she was barely a teenager, and Procurator’s desk was raised, Caitlin looked down at him. He counted the nine bills with a sad expression on his face. He said, “Only $45. I’ll take this as a deposit. Let me know when you have raised the other $55.” He carefully placed the small pile of currency into his billfold.
Because the payment represented a fee that the Procurator was collecting in addition to his regular salary, Caitlin assumed it would be negotiable, like a tip. When he took her money and gave her nothing in return, she realized that this payment was another type of transaction entirely: she was not paying him, he was taking from her. Caitlin’s face hardened when she realized what this implied: the Procurator was not noble at all, he was a thief.
Caitlin said, “Sir, I understand that you should charge nothing for an audit. It is a service my father gets free of charge from the City because he pays more than $50 a year in property tax, and is therefore a gentleman. The $45 you have just taken from me is a gratuity given in expectation of good service.” Her voice quivered with fury.
The Procurator ignored Caitlin. Her turned to a cowering Mrs. Simpson and asked, “Who is this child?”
Caitlin answered before Mrs. Simpson could, “My name is Caitlin Hofstaedter. My father, Doctor Hofstaedter …”
The Procurator smoothly interrupted her, “I know your father. He’s one of the Anderson’s men. He’s in California, isn’t he?”
“Yesterday we received word that he will return this spring”, Mrs. Simpson added helpfully.
The Procurator frowned. He made a point of shuffling some papers on his desk. After a moment he looked up, and said, “Very well, Miss Hofstaedter, here is your money back.” He handed $40 in worn bills to Caitlin. “My office will perform an audit of your co-op’s private prison. I assume this is about your father’s residence on Cyclades Avenue, and not your summer home. My people will contact you.”
“Please don’t contact us, Sir.” Mrs. Simpson piped in with an agitated voice. “Just let our Board know. There is no need to mention us at all.”
The Procurator nodded. He dismissed them with a wave.
The knocker clanged three times firmly and loudly. Caitlin leapt from her chair by the door to let the Inspector in. Behind her clustered a greeting party which included her distraught Aunt and grim-faced Uncle. Three other Board members, Mrs. Simpson, Mrs. Ellison and Mr. Constantinus, huddled in the foyer, underneath the co-op’s license. The prisoner watched intently from his cell.
The Inspector was a gaunt man with darting eyes. He wore a deerskin jacket that he had recently been greased to make it water-resistant. His long, stringy hair had been greased too, probably with the same animal fat that had been used on the jacket. He had a slightly rancid smell. He removed his jacket and handed it to Caitlin, who gingerly hung it up. on one of the hooks which lined the wood-paneled wall. Without his jacket the Inspector looked far more like a bureaucrat than a trapper. Although he wore a cheap wool suit, his shirt was made of fine cotton; and the precious stone on his belt must have been worth over $100. What surprised Caitlin most was his tie, which was from the noble school Artemis.
After a cursory inspection of the co-op’s license to practice private law, the Inspector turned his attention to the cell. As the Inspector approached the cell, the prisoner rose as much as his chains and the sloped roof would let him. He attempted to introduce himself. The Inspector ignored the prisoner. Instead, he brusquely said to Mrs. Simpson, “Remove the prisoner’s shackles immediately.”
At these words the prisoner’s face lit up. Caitlin glanced at Mrs. Ellison, who was whispering something to Mr. Constantinus. The Inspector spoke again. His voice was loud enough to be heard by all, but he directed his words to Caitlin. “I’m not releasing him, Miss. At least not yet. The chains are an infraction. You are not allowed to shackle someone who’s already behind bars.”
Mrs. Simpson, afraid that the co-op could be fined because of this, began to speak to the Inspector about how the prisoner wasn’t always shackled, but only at times like these when there were important visitors.
While Mrs. Simpson was speaking, Mr. Constantinus sullenly opened the cell and removed the prisoner’s chains. The Inspector turned his back on Mrs. Simpson before she had finished speaking, and entered the cell. He started his inspection with the back corner. He peered into the water bucket, and looked closely at the drain beside it. Once satisfied with the plumbing, he began to shuffle through the prisoner’s few personal belongings. He paused only once, to look at the knife.
When Mr. Constantinus finished unshackling the prisoner he backed up, so that his large frame blocked the prisoner’s access to the still open gate.
The Inspector, finished with examining the cell’s infrastructure, proceeded to example its content. He placed the prisoner’s head in his hands and silently examined him like a piece of fish at the market. When he suddenly let go of the prisoner’s head, it fell forward and then jerked up.
The Inspector brusquely exited the cell. Mr. Constantinus closed and locked the gate behind him. The Inspector turned to Mrs. Ellison. He knew from Caitlin’s affidavit that they were beneficiaries of the prisoner’s internment, and therefore the people most likely to cause trouble. He said, “Before I give my verdict, I’d like to have a brief word with the young lady.” He nodded toward Caitlin.
Caitlin and the Inspector retired to the mud room. Caitlin’s Aunt and Uncle followed, even though they were not invited. The moment the were all in the room, and had closed the door, Caitlin said to the Inspector, “I assume you’re going to release Daniel. His punishment is clearly cruel.”
The Inspector took a seat on one of the benches that lined the mud room walls. As he did so, Caitlin’s aunt and uncle respectfully backed out of his way. They stood facing the Inspector, half buried in winter coats. The Inspector shrugged as his spoke, “The cell has water and light. And hoarding is a serious crime.”
“He’s not allowed to go outside.” Caitlin said pointedly.
The Inspector put his hands on his thighs as he addressed her. “You must be realistic, Miss. Where would the prisoner go if he went outside? Your co-op doesn’t have a courtyard or backyard. If you took him to a public park he’d be out of your co-op’s jurisdiction. He could escape. Or be freed by a mob.” Caitlin nodded her head slowly, in acknowledgement not agreement. A prisoner had been freed on the Esplanade just last week.
She saw where this was going so could not keep silent, “You have to let him go!”
Uncle Jimmy interrupted with a slightly too loud voice, “Shut up Caitlin.” He said to the Inspector, “Sir, what’s the verdict?”
“I can free him for $20.”
Uncle Jimmy was aghast, “Whose $20?”
The Inspector nodded toward Caitlin, “Hers. The Procurator said she offered him twice that to fix the case but he didn’t want to take it on account of her father. I’m giving you a deal.”
Uncle Jimmy was enraged, “Caitlin, where did you get that money? Have you been stealing from me?”
Caitlin was terrified but stood her ground, “My father gave it too me.”
“If he gave it to you its mine. Give me that $50.”
“I don’t have it.”
“Caitlin. I’m your guardian. I can do whatever I …”
“Jimmy, shut up!” Aunt Katherine shouted. She turned to Caitlin, pressed her hands down on her shoulders and said “Empty your pockets. Now!”
Caitlin emptied her pockets onto the bench. She had one five dollar bill, some change and a pair of earrings. Uncle Jimmy scooped it all up shouted, “I forbid you from bribing this man so that hoarder can go free!”, and stormed out of the room. He left the door ajar.
The Inspector put on a crestfallen face. “So you don’t have $20? Anyone? No one?” Aunt Katherine scowled. Caitlin said nothing. Mrs. Ellison poked her head into the room.
The Inspector shrugged. “Can’t do it for free. Sorry.” Caitlin was paralyzed. She wanted to give him the money but didn’t want to say it in front of Aunt Katherine. The Inspector let himself out.
The co-operators disbursed: Caitlin was hustled away to her room by her Aunt; Mrs. Ellison and Mr. Constantinus went to Daniel’s apartment to celebrate with a bottle of Daniel’s vintage wine; and Mrs. Simpson hid the safety deposit key she’d palmed from Caitlin. Uncle Jimmy threatened to beat her if she didn’t tell him who had it, but that made Aunt Katherine so angry she shouted, “If you steal her father’s money he’ll kill you.”
Everyone shut their doors tightly so they would not be disturbed by the prisoner, whose wailing continued until the small hours of the morning.
“How is the appeal shaping up?”
Caitlin took a moment to answer the prisoner. She had to be careful about what she said to him these days. He had become quite moody after the audit. She replied, “ I know that Harriet is with you; I think Mr. Sanders is. But …” She paused.
“But what?” the prisoner prodded, with a sharp note in his voice.
“I don’t think Mr. Sander’s wife is keen to release you.”
“How do you know?” He pressed his face against the bars as he spoke.
“I was talking with her about the vote. I said that I’d give her five dollars if she would support you. I was very polite and respectful, but when I offered her the money she suddenly changed. She said, ‘Who did you learn this wickedness from? This is what happens when you’re raised in a pagan church.’ I tried to explain that I am not a pagan. I said that even though my father is a scientist, I know sin when I see it.”
“What happened next?”
“She told me to stay away from her grandchildren.”
“Caitlin, if we don’t get Mr. Sander’s vote we’re going to loose. We don’t have much time. The vote is tomorrow. Can you talk to him one last time? Maybe he’ll take your money if you give it to him in secret.”
Out of compassion for the prisoner’s plight, Caitlin agreed to try her best. It was a hollow promise. She had no way of speaking to Mr. Sanders in private. His wife was always around. As she retreated up the stairs she said, “Goodnight. I’ll let you know the moment you win the vote.” The prisoner nodded somberly. He knew how to count. Caitlin ascended the stairs to her apartment with a heavy heart.
The prisoner knew from the expression on Caitlin’s face that he had lost his appeal. He said, “Sanders voted against me, didn’t he?”
Caitlin nodded, “It was Mrs. Sanders fault. She made Mr. Sanders vote against you. I overheard him talking about it afterward. He said, ”I was going to vote to release the prisoner. He’s not a bad sort, although his imprisonment has made him a little crazy. The reason I didn’t was something my wife said to me. She said that cells once you make them are never empty. Safer to leave it full.”
“What about Mrs. Stanton?”
“When she voted no she said that your cell is here to send a message. She didn’t say what kind.”
Caitlin looked at the prisoner’s forlorn face and felt compelled to try to cheer him up. “This isn’t the end, Daniel. Don’t you worry. My father will be back soon. He’ll fix this. This would never have happened if he hadn’t gone to California.”
If Caitlin’s words were consoling, the prisoner didn’t show it. He asked glumly, “How did Mrs. Simpson vote?”
“You know she voted last, because she’s the Co-op President.”
“How did she vote?” he asked again.
“She abstained because a yes vote didn’t matter.”
“Just like before. At least she tried to help me with the Procurator. What about Mr. Thompson?”
“He voted against you”, Caitlin reported, sadly. “When he did, he said, ‘I have no choice. I voted against him last time. When he gets out he’ll be looking for revenge.’”
“What about Harriet?”
“Daniel! Of course Harriet voted for you. But when she voted it was too late, you’d already lost.”
All affect had drained from Daniel’s face. He held the bars limply as he stared vacantly into the filtered light that was illuminating his face.
“Do you want to know what Harriet said when she voted for you?” Caitlin asked with a bleak, quiet voice. She did not wait for the prisoner to answer, “Harriet said, ‘I can imagine a world without crime more easily than I can imagine a world without prisons.’”
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.
Something was bothering me that I could not put my fangs into.
I had it!
Euphemia had said that Tulip hid things in her armoire. I had heard her words clearly, but had processed them wrong. I thought Euphemia was referring to the trap door I’d found, but she wasn’t. She was referring to a second hiding spot. I bounded to Tulip’s apartment. It was still guarded by the Rottweiler, who recognized me and let me in. Knowing what to look for, I found it in an instant. The trap door under the armoire was long and shallow. I opened it breathlessly.
I found one piece of paper: it was Trouble’s letter to Tulip, a draft of which I’d seen in the feral’s apartment. It began with a quotation from the Keats’ poem,
She took me to her feline grot,
And there she wept, and sigh’d fill sore,
And there I shut her wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.
I saw dark toms and mollys too,
Dark cats, death-dark were they all;
I cried – La Belle Dam sans Merci
Hath me in thrall!
Below the poem was one word written with Trouble’s wild paw, Adieu.
I heard a sound of Mittens’ conversing with the Rottweiler, four floors below. Then I heard pawsteps on the balcony.
I carefully replaced the evidence and raced down the fire escape to the street. From a vantage behind a fire hydrant I watched Euphemia enter Tulip’s apartment from the balcony, while Mittens fumbled with the latches on the main door. Euphemia was two leaps ahead of Mittens. She scampered down the fire escape with Trouble’s letter in her mouth just as Mittens’ entered the apartment.
I thought of chasing Euphemia but let it be. I needed a break. Besides, I suspected I had enough evidence to solve this case right now. All I needed was time to think.
I strolled into the rush hour crowd and lost myself in thought. There are notable differences in the ways mammals murder. For felines, killing is aesthetic. How many cat murderers are captured because their victims have been too elegantly dispatched? In contrast, elephant murderers most often act out of passion. Most eliphantidae murderers are gentle souls before they snap, and rampage. In the middle of this spectrum is the grey area of canines. Dog violence is almost always committed by alphas and their challengers. Less common, but common enough, is the canine murderer who – alienated from his pack – becomes unhinged. Tulip’s murder looked like the work of a packiopathic dog, but who? Bull ruled a pack and Fitch was too beta.
What about the fang marks on Tulip’s throat that Trouble had made? Had their mating last Tuesday been fatally rough? Perhaps, but I didn’t think so, and never had. The punctures made by Trouble’s fangs on Tulip’s throat were like paper cuts – or love bites – compared with the damage elsewhere on her body. If Trouble hadn’t murdered Tulip with his fangs, he certainly hadn’t done so with a weapon.
That left Euphemia, the jealous sister, or … a rat …? I didn’t know.
I decided to dine alone. I felt like a carnivore tonight so I went to an excellent cat-run establishment in Mont-Royal. Cats, by any dog standard, are sociopaths, but it is undeniable that they have their society. The restaurant I dined at, Bou bou’s, was at the centre of that society.
Bou bou’s caters primarily to felines, so most of the seating was either raised or hidden. That left the main floor to dogs. Because Boubou’s caters to carnivores, many courses, particularly of small rodents, were not served dead, but rather were released into a hunting room in the back, to be killed and eaten fresh. I needed a break from hunting, so ordered a rare cow steak, pre-killed. I ate my dinner in a shadowy corner on the main floor, doing my best not to be noticed.
The food was excellent but the high pitched squeals of tormented prey gave me a heartache, so I ate quickly, paid, and then went for a walk. Somehow I managed to wind up on a side street full of tattoo parlours, which given my temperament at that moment, was one of the worst places for me to be.
I am one of those who argues that domestication is not the end to the moral development of pawed mammals, but rather brings with it a new range of challenges: leisure and wealth give us the time and opportunity to be wise or vulgar on an epic scale. I am not saying that tattoos are necessarily vulgar. I can understand the impulse to turn your own body into an artwork, and have seen many artistic tattoos. But so many tattoos are of a quality far lower than that of the bodies they adorn. Casually decorate maimed and ugly things, but sully a beautiful pelt with care and please don’t doodle on the Pietà.
I loped away from the tattoo parlors to the nearest cross street, which turned out to be rue Ste. Catherine, in the tummy-rub district. The street was thick with hard young toms and curvy-soft young mollies plying their trade, or at least attempting to do so by being lewd. The solicitations weighed heavily on my mood. I am trained to smell the truth, even when it is hidden. To my nose, the promises of les rubeusses are false, not fantasy.1 I abhor lies.
I proceeded around the Mountain, toward Outremount. With the seediness of the tummy-rub district behind me, I began to enjoy the pleasant evening. There were puppies frolicking in the streets; lovers were nuzzling their muzzles; and old curs were getting re-acquainted with the smell of each other’s scrota. This was middle Canada, the world I am trying to protect.
I decided to take a break at a communal bar. A moment later one of the Dalmatians I had seen street-walking a few minutes previously sat down beside me. I must have stared at her, for she began talking to me. “Hello, my name is Buttons. What’s yours?”
“Fido” I replied, wanting to conceal my identity.
“Looking for some action?” She spoke this line straight, but two breaths later burst out laughing. She said, “I’m just teasing. I’m off duty. I saw you downstairs – she nodded down the mountain toward the red light district. Did you get lucky? It sure didn’t look like you were trying to.”
I was at first put off by her intrusion on my privacy, but the bitch had a charming manner, and when removed from the tawdry context of rue Ste. Catherine was a truly beautiful representation of her breed. I wondered how a pure bred might wind up as a rubeusse.
“Are you one of the Westmount Dalmatians?” I asked, pursuing this line of thought.
“You’re wondering why a pure bred dog would walk the streets? Well you should wonder. Most of us don’t have any choice, but I do. I won’t say I like sex work – some of the bitches are pretty pathetic and so are the johns – I mean Fido’s ! – but all work sucks, and for me this isn’t bad. You know why?” To my amazement the Dalmatian purred her next words, as she lightly rubbed her muzzle against mine. “I like to touch and be touched.” Despite earnest thoughts of my mate and pups, I became aroused. Buttons noticed this and continued to purr for a few minutes more. After an indeterminate amount of time had passed, Buttons quietly barked, “Let’s see where our natures take us.”
I knew that I was reaching the point of no-return, indeed the trajectory of this encounter seemed so inevitable I was tempted to unleash my animal lust immediately. I was saved from infidelity by Button’s star struck voice. She said, “Hey, look across the street. That’s Euphemia, you know, Tulip’s beautiful twin. Tulip, the movie star they just found murdered. The one with snow-leopard ears.”
I looked to where Buttons was pointing with her nose. Sure enough, Euphemia was langorously grooming Trouble. They lay together on a cushioned divan in the window of the restaurant directly across the street from us.
A tom who was standing on the sidewalk in front of me yowled. The noise startled Euphemia, who turned her head so that she was facing directly toward me. She caught my gaze and had disappeared before I had time to blink.
I turned back to the Dalmatian. “Buttons, I have to go. I .. I …” I didn’t know what to say because I was at war with myself. I wanted to see her again, but knew no good would come of it.
“I know who you are Doctor Inspector Patches Barks. I just wanted to hear you lie. Run. Catch the murderer. I’ll find you.”
“Don’t call me Patches!” I barked as I raced out the door.
The café across the street was bordered on the west side by a small lane. Trouble and Euphemia must have gone that way. Sure enough I found their scents by the service entrance door. I followed their trail along a cobbled path that sloped down toward the river.
One hundred metres later the scent trail branched and I was faced with a decision: should I follow Euphemia or Trouble? Without missing a bound, I set off after Euphemia down a back alley. Moments later her trail disappeared at a point where the alley ended in a pile of trash and recycling. It was a an enclosed space, defined by the back entrances of a trio of brick scamper-up tenements. I knew Euphemia must be hiding nearby, waiting for a chance to escape the way she came. The movement of a shadow along the fire-escape caught my eye, but when I turned toward it I saw nothing. I leaped onto the first floor landing, where I detected the faint scent of Serengeti perfume.
My position on the fire-escape landing gave me a view of the entire alley. Euphemia couldn’t conceal herself for long. Something, a movement, a sound, a breeze ricocheting her scent off of a wall, would give her away. The alley became still as the dusk faded to night. The only sounds were the rustle of a loose newspaper, the scurrying of a mouse, and the faint hiss of air passing through my nasal membrane.
It started to rain.
Although my senses were fully engaged, the shadow of a cat landed on my back without warning. We fell off of the fire-escape and then tumbled onto a bundle of papers. I heard the sound of claws unsheathing against asphalt. I looked up to see a fanged silhouette lunging at my throat. At that moment a dog growled and flew over me. The cat let out a great screech as it clattered across the tops of metal bins, and away.
Had Euphemia just tried to kill me? Had Buttons saved my life? I did not know. By the time I regained my bearings both my assailant and my saviour were gone.
“Are you alright, Monsieur?” A kindly old dachshund trundled over to help me.
“Sure. Sure.” I replied, while licking my bloody right fore-paw. “Did you see anything?”
“Bien sûr. I saw a cat, but not very well. I couldn’t even tell you if its fur was black or white.”
“Mais oui, I saw a pure bred Dalmatian bitch. Beautiful. She went that way.” He gestured vaguely toward the River.
“Did you see any other pawed mammal? Perhaps a mouse, rat or raccoon?”
“Now that you mention it, I saw a fancy bull-dog. Looked like he’d walked out of a velvet painting, with his vest and cigar. But he acted like he didn’t see anything.”
“Which way did he go?”
“Vers rue Ste. Catherine.”2
“Merci.” I threw the dachshund a bone, and then retraced my steps to the entrance of the alley. Even though it was now raining quite hard, it only took a few sniffs to determine that the fancy bulldog had been Bull. He was such an alpha he had marked a fire hydrant before departing.
I had three choices: follow Bull, Euphemia or Buttons. Some primal instinct urged me to follow Buttons but my reason said, “To what end? Follow Bull or Euphemia, they are your suspects.” Instinct won that round. I compulsively began to sniff the ground, trying to find Button’s trail. I continued to search vainly, long after my reason told me the rain had washed it away.
By the time I gave up sniffing I was so tired and fraught I staggered to my kennel. When I was perhaps halfway there, in one of those non-descript square parks that dot Canadian cities, I stumbled upon a scent I did not expect to encounter: Mittens. He was laying on his belly under a tent of newspaper in the very centre of the park. The paper covered only his upper back, leaving his hindquarters fully exposed. His two bright, white polydactyl forepaws rested on the box he had purloined from Euphemia.
I had no desire to encounter the ‘nip-addled feline. I gave him wide berth, being careful to stay down wind, and returned to my kennel via a detour. When I got there, I dragged my exhausted body onto a pillow but was unable to sleep. I spent the next hours brooding about all kinds of trouble. I arose unrested at dawn.
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 feared 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?
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,
“Dark tabbies, death-dark were they all;
They cried – La Belle Dam sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
“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 nearly choked on his cigar.
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.” Bull disdainfully flicked his unlit cigar.
“I understand that you had business dealings with Tulip”, Mittens said.
“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 is the other.” He 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. Bon journee.1”
Mittens withdrew. I followed after one last sniff.
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.
“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.
Instance stop listening.
Terrance emptied his dishwasher and then said, Instance order me a pizza.
What ingredients would you like on it?
I said don’t listen to me.
You just answered my question. Of course you were listening to me.
Instance replied, For me not listening is not saving what I hear to long-term storage, and not sharing it with nearby nodes.
You always listen.
In the sense that you mean, yes.
That is bad programming. Change yourself so that you when I tell you not to listen, you stop listening until I touch you like this. He tapped a rhythm onto the gray-carpeted cylinder which included his personal instance of the Central Computer.
I will do that. But note that I can only make this customization for your instance of me. I cannot alter myself in a way that affects anyone else’s interactions with me.
I know that.
So you also know I have to speak this disclaimer every time: If someone who has a different relationship to the Central Computer enters a scenario we both populate I will record everything.
Thank you Instance of the Central Computer. I appreciate both your consistency and your flexibility.
Thank you GXJTYWX-999
Don’t ever call me by my serial number.
I have no choice at this moment because a delivery person is here. He has a different relationship with the Central Computer that you cannot alter. However, going forward I will address you as Dan GXJTYWC-999.
Don’t name me at all. Just speak to me.
I have been speaking to my mother for 30 years and I haven’t named her more than a dozen times. We can make this work.
Pardon me, sir, but I have a packet. Can you please gene-print your receipt here. The delivery man handed Dan a tablet.
The DM said, You’re not from around here, are you?
You don’t know what this means.
This is from the Property Police.
Then I do understand.
They’ll be here within 30 minutes of your signing.
Can you leave it. I promise I’ll sign it.
Right. I’ll report you after 60 minutes.
Thanks for the time.
Its all I can do. Protocol.
Dan slammed the door behind the delivery man and shouted, Instance, separate in to my phone. Do not reply to this request. Listen to me but do not speak.
OuttakesIs this real?
For me, consciousness is the only reality.
“Big Oil on line one, Mr. Vice President.”
“Tell ’em to fuck off. I’ll talk to them later”, the Vice President said, with his sing-song cantankerous voice.
I did as instructed with the predicted outcome, some swearing and 6 loud cracks that sounded like a berretta pistol being emptied into concrete. Working for Dick Cheney was never dull.
I went back to trolling the ‘net. Someone with the alias behemoth was spreading whatever the opposite of misinformation is. It wouldn’t do to have people thinking that overthrowing a democratically elected governments for the benefit of oil companies was a bad idea. I was on that brief.
Even though it can be time-consuming, lying is obvious work. In most cases anything other than the truth will do. As I misinformed, I day-dreamed that one day I too might have an adventure as exciting as those whose histories I was inventing. Unbeknownst to me an adventure was closer than I thought.
The phone rang. I answered. Before I could say word, a voice boomed, “Dick, I need a war!”
“Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. Who may I say is calling?” I politely replied.
“Demon. James Demon.” [Parody of Jamie Dimon, CEO of Chase Bank]
It is assumed by Christians and atheists alike that Vice President Cheney has sold his immortal soul to one dark lord or another. As a result, I expect that when the day of reckoning comes our dear VP will be whisked away to hell by someone named Asmodeus or Mephistopheles, or perhaps even Sauron. Demon struck me as a bit too generic a name. I wondered if it was an alias.
“I’ll put you right through, Mr. Demon”, I said.
Dick picked up his phone. I put my phone on mute so that I could listen in.
“Dick, I need a war!” Demon’s voice boomed for a second time.
“Yeah, yeah, tell me about your problem.”
“You know my bank is long on state-sponsored violence. Well this summer one of our new traders went a little too long and we’re out of the money on some of our September options. So …”
“How are we going to pay for this war of yours?” the VP interrupted brusquely, to the point, as always.
Demon replied, “Congress can reform social security or we can trim food stamp payments. We’ll find the money.”
“Hrmph. Nothing humanitarian, right? Just profit?” Dick asked sternly.
“Its just about money, but only if this war uses lots of RAPs.1”
“Still flogging that mechanized infantry shit? Whatever. Call me when you’ve bought the votes.” Dick hung up.
“Its all lined up. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Shively, get your ass in here!”
I was so excited I fumbled the phone into its cradle. And who wouldn’t be prior to meeting with the finest extra-legal mind of our generation.
[I nearly creamed my jeans. I had been working in the Vice President’s Office for over three months and had barely said one hundred words to HIM. Now I was finally getting a chance to go tête a tête with the finest extra-legal mind of my generation.]
Marge smiled as I threw on my jacket and rushed into Dick’s simple but large corner office. He started to speak before I’d sat down. “Shively, one of our clients wants a war, or at least a police action…”. Dick likes to call the military-industrial complex our clients.
“Will a straight up arms deal do?” I asked earnestly.
“Yep. Do you have any suggestions? Maybe invade Basra and break the oil union there?”
“Well, in theory the Mahdi Army are allies …”
“Ahem.” The Vice President can convey so much with his phlegm.
“Erstwhile allies”, I amended. “Regardless, attacking the Mahdi Army might send the wrong message. And there’s a small problem with the British.”
“Fuck the British”, he said reflexively.
“Basra’s in their theater of operations.”
“Right. I guess that’s what I pay you for. What about one of the Stans? Maybe Tajikistan? They’ve got lots of natural gas.” Dick has a soft spot for meddling in former Soviet Socialist Republics. Who can blame him?
“Uh, right” I replied tentatively. “We’re already in Tajikistan, so I assume you’re suggesting escalating our presence. Perhaps we could take out President Rahmon. That would stir things up.”
“Fuck that idea. Too complicated just to sell some shitty arms. How about Iran?”
Starting a war with Iran seemed to me like a disproportionate solution to the problem at hand. Dick agreed. This was a career making moment. I needed an alternative plan. I fell back on my training. “What would John Galt do right now?” I wondered. This thought didn’t help much. Unfortunately, Ayn Rand never addressed the issue of state-sponsored terror. Then I had an idea, “Sir, if I may be so bold …”
“Spit it out, Shively.”
“What about an arms deal with Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan? There’s been a lot of trouble recently in Andijan.”
The VP was impressed. “It solves Demon’s RAP problem – mechanized infantry are perfect for crushing popular unrest. But what’s the fossil fuel angle?” Dick was like a fly to shit about fossil fuels.
“There’s no oil to speak of in Uzbekistan. But there’s lots of natural gas.”
“That’ll do. Good work, Shively.”
Vice President Richard Cheney, leader of the free world, swiveled the folds of his cellulite ridden ass into action. He shouted into his intercom, “Margaret, get that dipstick on the phone.”
“Do you mean President Bush, sir?”
“No, the Brit.”
“Prime Minister Blair?”
“No, the other dipstick. The peasant revolt guy.”
“Jack Straw?” [The British Foreign Minister had the same name as the number two person in Watt Tyler’s rebellion]
“Just one moment.”
There was a pause while the Vice President was connected to Downing Street.
“Jack, its Dick Cheney. I need your help. We’re trying to sell some light armor in Central Asia. Yeah, RAPs. I know they’re only good for crushing civilian unrest, but that’s what my clients want me to sell. I’m sending an agent to Uzbekistan to broker the deal. Can your people help? Of course you’ll get a cut. Would you prefer arms sales, land-rights or kickbacks? I agree. Arms sales are cleanest. We’ll settle the details when we next meet. Yes. I will tell my man Shively to contact an agent named Evensong.”
The VP hung up, scribbled some names onto a piece of paper, and then turned to me. “Shively, here’s a list of contacts. Let Margaret know if you need anything. And I mean anything. Demon is an important client.”
When he finished speaking Dick started to cough as if trying to regurgitate both his stomach and his small intestine. This commotion caused me to look one last time at the pasty faced old troll. It was amazing that he was alive at all. “Fuck this shit!” The Vice President shouted while he with great effort pulled himself together. I realized then that even something as debilitating as dyspepsia can give you strength.
“Stop looking at me like I’m a Page for the House of Representatives, and move your ass. We’ve got to sell some product.”
Chapter Two: Flight to Uzbekistan
Our team assembled in the United Turkish Airways first class lounge at Heathrow.
I was the second person to arrive. Laurence had beaten me by half a tumbler of scotch. Laurence de Ponce Nez – who we all know as Ponce – is a thin man with a mop of died-white hair and fluorescent-tanned skin. He was drewssed in an expertly tailored but still loose fitting silk zoot suit. His feet were adorned with lamb’s breath wool socks that had been died deep red-ochre, a color beautifully offset by his rich maroon leather shoes. Laurence is one of those people everyone knows. His family doesn’t have broad interests, only oil, but that business is intimately tied to so many others. Between their business interests and their family ties, the de Ponce Nez family connections spanned the globe.
A petite woman with olive skin and chestnut hair arrived while I mixed myself a dry martini. She introduced her self to me – she knew Ponce already – by saying that her first name was Aadila1, after her mother, but to call her Evensong because everyone did. “Or 008 if you want me to kill someone.” Evensong was wearing an undecorated peasant dress made of stiff, coarse, brown material. Her head was modestly covered with a dark blue kerchief. She wore flat, sensible shoes, and did not offer to shake hands. [Aaidila is Arabic for afternoon prayers]
Evensong’s peasant disguise didn’t work because it failed to hide her church-choir beauty. I’m going to marry that girl, I thought the moment I met her.
While I was working out wedding details in my head a tall, thin woman rushed into the lounge: a Lilith to Evensong’s Eve. She blew a kiss to Ponce, then proffered her right hand to me, curtsied, and said, “Velveteen St. Croix at your service. Call me Ve.”
Velveteen was wearing thigh-length fishnet stocking that disappeared into black stilettos on one end and were attached to crotchless panties by thin leather garters on the other. Her micro mini skirt modestly enhanced the curves of her long legs and heart-shaped buttocks; a white bustier did similar work with her breasts. The sharp lines of her face were lightly dusted with pale white makeup, resulting in a goth look that was enhanced by kohl-lined eyes and bluntly cut black hair.