CAT’S PAW

By Pam Skochinski


“I think I saw a rat, can you come out and check for me?”

“Sure, I can put you on the schedule for. . .” Jason reached for his appointment book.

“No, I need you to come out now!”

“Um, sure.” Jason shrugged. It’s not like he was busy at the moment. “What’s the address?” With a sigh of regret, he turned off his favorite soap opera and went out to the garage to load extermination gear into his truck.

Abruptly, the city gave way to rolling countryside. Jason had never been out this way before, but he’d read about the area in the local news. Here were prime development sites for the encroaching city. The town council spent many long hours planning how to develop the land when it became available. When, not if. Development was blocked by the owner, crazy old Rosa Murphy. Her daughter, and presumed heir, was Amelia Murphy, the Mayor. So, development was imminent. Jason was glad he had the chance to drive through the area before it became tract homes.

He checked the directions to the house several times, until he finally found the old washboard dirt road that led out to the derelict Victorian mansion. He knocked at the door. For a woman in such a hurry to get him out here, she sure was taking her own sweet time answering the door. Finally, he heard scuffling footsteps. The door opened with a high squeal of protesting hinges and he found himself staring down the business end of a shotgun.

“Whaddya want?” The old woman growled.

“You called and said you’d seen a rat. I came out right away.”

“Ain’t no rats.” The woman growled. “If’n so, Cat over there would take care of’em.” She motioned the barrel of the shotgun toward a huge gray tabby cat perched on a rusted iron rocking chair. “So, scoot yourself on back to your truck. Go on now.”

Jason didn’t have to be told twice. He backed away, not turning his back until the old woman had closed the door. He’d seen the piles of paper and trash strewn in the room behind her, she’d be lucky if she didn’t have hundreds of rats living in the house with her. “Crazy old woman.” And, he’d missed his show, to boot.

Rosa locked the door behind her. Rats, indeed. She glanced around her. She didn’t see too well these days. Her eyes, once snapping black orbs, now had a whitish film of old age and cataracts. She’d think about buying a pair of glasses at the drug store when she went into town. But, there was nothing wrong with her hearing. She stood still, listening to the noise of the truck receding in the background. Nope, nothing. Then, she paused. Had that been a scuttling shuffle? She listened harder until all she could hear was the blood pounding in her own ears.

She shuffled off toward the kitchen, shaking her head at her own foolishness. She’d lived in this house her whole life, had outlived everyone in her family except her traitorous daughter, and had fought tooth and nail to keep the house and its land from the greedy town that perched with bared teeth waiting for her to sell or to die.

She wished that man had never shown up on her doorstep with his talk of rats. Now, it was all she could think about. She hadn’t called him. Probably someone from town, spying, making sure she hadn’t up and died. Well, she was still here and still ready to fight for what was hers. She wasn’t afraid of anything, except maybe rats. Stifling a scream at the sound of scratching, she tried to laugh when she realized it was just Cat out on the porch, wanting in.

As darkness fell, Rosa lit a small lantern and made her way to her bedroom. Since she’d be up with the dawn, tending to this, that, and the other, she went to bed with the sun. Sleep usually came readily, but not tonight.

Rosa lay listening to the sounds of the house. The wind chimes jangled on the back porch, Cat whistle-snored in the chair by her bed, paper scuffled and rattled in the living room. She sat up in bed, sure she’d heard a squeak. She listened harder and all she heard was quiet. Just her imagination, had to be. Then, she heard scuffling and what sounded like a squeak. She looked over at the sleeping cat. She didn’t feed him much and he was awfully fat these days; fat, and content, and old. What was he eating? She wanted to think it was just birds, those nasty starlings that invaded the yard and made such a raucous racket. If there were rats in the house, why wasn’t Cat up hunting them? Maybe he was hard of hearing? She tried to remember how many years ago it had been when the scrawny, gray kitten had come mewling around the yard. Four, seven, it was so hard to remember. Rosa choked back a sob. Then, she heard scratching and a squeak. Was it in the wall by the bed? Rosa stared at the wall, as if she were trying to see through it. Nothing. She finally relaxed and lay back in bed only to sit upright in terror at a slithering scuffling sound near the head of the bed.

“Cat.” Rosa reached over and prodded the sleeping cat. When it didn’t move, she panicked herself into thinking it was dead. Then, she realized it wasn’t a cat, after all. It was only a pile of shirts that she hadn’t bothered to put away. “Cat?”

She lay down, heart pounding, listening to the sounds of the night. Come morning, she’d start cleaning up the house. Rats left evidence, if she didn’t find any evidence she’d know all the noises had just been her imagination. She closed her eyes, but they flew open again as she listened for, and heard, what sounded like rats playing in the walls.

She’d never been so grateful to see daylight.

She started off cleaning out the papers in the front hall and built a roaring fire in the fireplace to burn them. As she pitched each pile into the flickering flames, she flinched, expecting to feel skittering claws of a rat running up her arms. The front hall was cleared out and she started on the kitchen next, throwing out rotten, moldy foodstuffs thinking that when she got done, there’d be nothing for even the smallest rodent to eat. Course, there’d be nothing for her either, but she didn’t feel much like eating anything. The thought of rats made her skin crawl and her appetite die.

She worked far into the night, but finally, the house was clean. She sat on the couch, listening. Only silence, sweet silence. She closed her eyes and the smile on her lips died when she heard it. A shuffle and a squeak. She listened closer. Where was it coming from? In the walls? She stood up and followed the sound.

As she stood in the front hall, the house was silent around her. Rosa was almost convinced that it was just her imagination when a shadow flitted along the floorboard, scuttled more like it, heading toward the kitchen. . .and the basement.

The basement she thought with a shudder. Going into the kitchen, she stood and stared at the old forgotten door. The last time she’d even opened the door was when she’d thrown Amelia’s belongings down the stairs. She couldn’t remember what all was down there now.

But she could hear rustling, shuffling, and squeaking. The basement was where the noise had to be coming from.

She turned the knob and the door creaked open. Hadn’t she locked it all those years ago?

Oh, Amelia, Miss Fancy Pants Mayor. Thoughts of her daughter still made her seething mad. And now Rosa remembered what they had argued about. Rats. Amelia had wanted a pet. She hadn’t been happy with the cats and dogs that lived around the property. No, she’d gone to the pet store after something exotic and had come home with a large white rat, the type with bulging red eyes. Rosa remembered throwing the horrible thing against the wall. She’d then kicked it down the stairs, followed by its cage. After Amelia ran away from home, Rosa threw all of her belongings down those self-same steps and locked the door. Yes, now she was sure she had locked the door.

But, it was open now. And that rat. Maybe it didn’t die. Maybe it was still down there. No, of course not, it would be dead by now. But, maybe it was pregnant when Amelia brought it home. Oh, lord, there’d be plenty of baby rats in ten years.

Rosa was trembling as she pushed the door open further. She stood, trying to catch her breath. She should just stop, lock the door, and forget it. But the thought of rats frolicking in her basement made her angry enough to overcome her fear. Gathering up her courage, she stepped onto the staircase and lifted the lantern high. Hundreds of beady red eyes stared at her and she could almost hear them licking their chops. At that moment, something warm and furry twined itself around her ankles. With a bloodcurdling scream, she lost her balance and tumbled down the stairs, landing at the bottom with a sickening crack and thud.

Jason read of Rosa’s death in the paper and, thinking to offer his services and satisfy his curiosity, he drove up to the old house again. The property looked much the same, except for yellow police tape fluttering in the breeze.

A lone sheriff’s car sat empty in front of the house, so Jason walked up to the front door and knocked. No wizened old woman with a shotgun greeted him today. Jason knocked louder and then hollered into the dim interior as he entered.

“What’cha be needing?” The pudgy bald sheriff hitched his belt and tried to look official.

“I read in the paper that there had been a rodent problem out here. I came to offer my services. Jason, Jason Fellowes of Fellowes exterminators.”

“We had you out when we first moved into Wyandotte estates. Terrible rat problem we had then. You took care of it real good.” The sheriff drawled. “But, I can’t say you’re needed out here.”

“The paper said. . .” Jason began.

“Can’t believe everything you read. It may have looked like rat bites on her body, but it couldn’t have been. There’s not a rodent out here, no evidence that there ever was. Thanks for offering your help though.”

The sheriff led the way to the front porch and closed and locked the door behind him. “I was just out closing up the house for Rosa’s daughter, Amelia. She wanted me to come out, check for vandals, and put up some condemned signs. She’s having the place torn down, sight unseen, on Monday. Nothing much in there but trash, anyway.”

“You’d think she’d want to go through her mother’s stuff in case there’s anything valuable.”

“You don’t know much about the Murphys then. Amelia and Rosa had a big falling out years ago. Amelia moved on with her life and she’s not been back to this house in years. Even if it was valuable, Amelia wouldn’t want it if’n it was her mother’s.”

“That’s too bad. But odd.”

“Why odd?”

“Well, I got a call a few weeks back. The woman said she’d seen a rat. Well, when I got out here, Mrs. Murphy said she hadn’t called and that there weren’t any rats out here. After I read her obituary, I got to thinking that maybe it was the daughter who had called me.”

“It sure couldn’t have been Rosa. There’s no phone or electricity in this old place. And I can’t think that Amelia would care anything about it, being Mayor takes up all her time.” The sheriff shrugged. “Anyway, thanks for taking care of us in the estates. If I hear of any business, I’ll send it your way.”

“Thanks.” Jason drove off, still puzzling. He glanced at the clock. Too bad the sheriff was right behind him, if he could drive a little faster, he’d be able to catch the tail end of his show at home.

He’d forgotten all about Rosa Murphy, her house, and the puzzle of the rats until he got a call one afternoon about a year later.

“Oh, please. I need your help. It’s large and furry.” The woman shrieked. “Please hurry!” With some trouble, Jason was able to extract the address from the hysterical woman and promised to get there as soon as he could.

With amazement, he drove through Murphy Estates. It sure had changed. There was now a whole neighborhood of new tract houses nestled in the rolling hills of Rosa Murphy’s old land. He pulled up in front of a mansion that sat, as close as he could estimate, in the exact same location as the old Victorian. He pulled equipment out of his truck and trudged up the front steps.

“Oh, thank you, thank you!” A woman scurried out the front door, leaving it ajar. The house had changed, but the piles of paper and trash hadn’t. Jason stared into the dim interior of the house with a feeling of déjà vu. “It’s around here, somewhere. I saw it earlier today.” She suddenly screamed, making Jason jump.

A huge gray cat yawned and stared at him from its perch on an old rusted lawn chair.

“Where?” Jason looked around the area.

“Are you blind? That, that thing. There, take it away.” The woman pointed directly at the cat.

“Oh, I don’t usually handle. . .”

“I don’t care. You’re an exterminator, get rid of it. I hate cats.” With that, the woman threw a check at him and dashed back into the house, her long dirty robe whisking the dust off the porch behind her and looking all the world like the trail a rat’s tail would make.

Jason looked down at the check. It more than covered his fee. He stared at the imprint on the check, Amelia Murphy. What an odd coincidence that Rosa’s daughter lived in a house smack dab on the site of her childhood home. Or was it?

“Hey buddy.” As Jason petted the cat, he recognized it as Rosa’s old cat. It had survived the razing of its home. Jason supposed it was just trying scrape up acquaintance with the new occupants in hope of scrounging a meal or three. Cat purred and arched into his hand. “What say you come live with me? You might be able to give me a few pointers, seeing as we’re both in the same line of business.”

He picked up the cat and out of the corner of his eye, he saw a quick movement that reminded him of a rat, running across the windowsill. But when he turned to get a closer look, the curtain flicked shut. Must have only been the lady of the house making sure he did his job. He carried the unresisting cat to the car and settled it on the front passenger seat. As he drove off, Jason looked back in the rearview mirror. He could have sworn he saw a pair of glowing red eyes watching him depart. He took a closer look and realized it was only Amelia Murphy, watching him through the front window. Man, that woman must really hate cats.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pam Skochinski, and previously writing as Pamela Karavolos, has had short stories published in Murderous Intent Mystery Magazine, Futures Mysterious Anthology, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Flash Fantastic, Sorcery and Science, Mysterical-E, Flashshot, and A Flasher’s Dozen. Her short story, The Truth Is Out There, appears in Twisted Cat Tales, an anthology edited by Esther Schrader. Recently married, she's on sabbatical from technical writing to spend more time with her children, living in "Pam"demonium in Southern California.


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