Sir Algernon Tinkletoes III was behaving in a most peculiar manner when Norbert “Scraps” Doan arrived at the estate. The obese Abyssinian staggered through the heirloom black dahlias, ropes of drool hanging from the toy mouse clenched in his teeth.
“Big Pussy, what’s wrong?” cried Norbert.
Tinkletoes lurched toward his confidant, knocking over the resin-cast garden gnome before he collapsed. He grasped the orange tabby about the neck, pulled him close and whispered in his oversized ear.
“Rosebud,” he gasped. “Rosebud...”
Without further ceremony, Tinkletoes expired.
Crushed under Big Pussy’s limp form, Norbert scrabbled to free himself from the mountain of dead cat. Breathing hard, he put some distance between himself and the deceased don. Now was not the time to panic. With tensions high between the upper crust Housecat families and the street tough Alleycats, Big Pussy’s sudden demise came at exactly the wrong time. Up to his whiskers in covert negotiations between the factions, Norbert couldn’t afford to be caught with the corpse of the Wimsey boss. He had enough secrets to keep from both sides without the complication.
Norbert kicked his little grey cells into overdrive. Aside from the very dead Abyssinian, nothing seemed amiss in the garden. Except…
He took a closer look at the pink felt mouse still clutched in Big Pussy’s now rigid jaws. The toy appeared plebian compared to the House cat don’s usual high-end tastes. Norbert sniffed at the torn fabric, caught a delicious whiff of catnip. He pried the toy from Big Pussy’s mouth and dropped it on the lawn for a closer look. Absorbed in the task, he did not hear the Wimsey capos approach.
“Mmmurderer,” meowed Maximillian the Manx.
“Traitorous Alley cat,” hissed Hercule Huntington.
Norbert chose not to argue the point. He snatched up the questionable catnip toy and fled.
The darkened passage behind The Bird Cage Bar reeked of rotting fish and cat piss. The rough and tumble group of GalleyCats arrayed themselves in a half-circle around Norbert.
“So you think this was a hit, maybe from another family?” Button’s kneaded his paws on the asphalt, unable to sit still. The little black cat had survived an unfortunate incident involving an M-80. In addition to several nervous tics, Buttons had also developed an unnatural fascination with explosives as a result.
“Well, it sure as hell wasn’t me.” His ears flicked back and forth like satellite dishes. “It makes sense that another family wanted him out of the way.”
“Maybe. Big Pussy had his claws in a lot of tuna, though.” Dash’s pronouncement created a wave of muttered meows in the gathering.
“That’s true. The biggest Chicken of the Sea was the pax he was trying to broker between the Wimseys and the GalleyCats.” Norbert paced in front of the gathered cats. “I’ve been set up, fellas – we’ve all been set up. If we don’t find the real killer soon, the Wimseys will try to lay this one at the GalleyCats doorstep. We could end up with an all-out war in Cat-atonia.”
“So what you want us to do?” Dash licked a paw and slicked back his fur.
“Buttons, you and Eddie Ex use your contacts, see if you can learn something from the other families. Dash, I want you and Himes to hit the sushi bars, see what the Chan cats have to say. The rest of you, fan out and round up all the usual suspects. Everyone work in pairs, check in at The Bird Cage with any information you come up with. Keep your ears open and your claws out. Any questions?”
“What about me?” snarled a voice from the back of the pack.
“Herringbone, you’re with me. We’ll take The Fish Bowl. I need to see a guy about a mouse.”
Herringbone trotted next to Norbert. A few doors down from The Fish Bowl pet store, Norbert ducked into a vestibule.
“What? Why are we stopping?” asked Herringbone. The sinewy red and white tom flicked his tail impatiently.
“Before we go any further I need to ask you something.” A tiny muscle in Norbert’s jaw jumped.
“No. I haven’t told anybody. You know, I can’t believe you’re worried about your dirty little secret coming out now.” Herringbone glared at his brother out of his good eye. His left one was milk-white and blind.
“It’s bad enough the Wimseys think I murdered Big Pussy, but if they found out I was born an Alleycat,” Norbert shook his head. “That would seal it. In their eyes, my lineage is motive enough to convict me.”
“Your secret’s in good paws. Besides me, Dash and Buttons are the only ones who know your true heritage. As far as everybody else is concerned, you’re a Housecat and a Wimsey.” Herringbone cocked an ear at his brother. “We good here?”
“We’re good. I had to be sure, Herringbone. You understand.”
“Stop wasting wind. Let’s go find Big Pussy’s killer.”
The Fish Bowl pet supply store was closed - unless, you knew the shop cat, Bunter. Norbert got up on his hind legs at the front door, extended his claws and rapped three times on the glass. A grey and white striped cat appeared in the main aisle, jerked his head to the side. Norbert and Herringbone went to the back door, leaped up onto the dumpster and through the open transom.
“Didn’t expect to see you out, Norbert. I hear the Wimseys are looking for you.” Bunter glanced around, clearly nervous.
“I got a bigger problem.” Norbert tossed the fuchsia mouse to the floor. It skidded across the linoleum, stopped in front of the shop cat.
“What’s the prob? That there is primo nip, my friend. Top-shelf, high octane, Columbian nepetalactone.” He sniffed appreciatively at the toy, extended his tongue to steal a taste.
“The problem is that it’s poisoned.”
Bunter froze, his tongue a hairsbreadth from the catnip. He carefully retracted it. “What are you talkin’ about?”
“Poisoned. I’m guessing arsenic from the effects it had on Big Pussy. I need to know where it came from. There’s not an ounce of nip that comes into this city that you don’t know about, so spill.”
“Easy now, big guy. I don’t know where you’re getting your information, but I don’t know nothin’ about no poisoned nip.” Bunter stepped back, tail whipping behind him.
With a twitch of his whiskers, Norbert signaled Herringbone. His brother darted forward, flipped Bunter and pinned him down.
“Fess up, you shifty bastard.” Norbert leaned in, nose-to-nose with the shop cat. “That toy came from here. I want to know who bought it.”
Bunter mewled, his eyes squeezed into slits. “I got no idea what you’re talking ‘bout, Norbert. Paw to god, no freakin’ clue.”
“Are you saying you never saw this pink mouse before? Because if that’s what you’re saying, Bunter, my friend...”
“Lotsa cat toys walk outta here, but I don’t know about no poisoned nip. I swear, Norbert.”
“I don’t care about lots of cat toys. I care about this one. Who bought it?” Norbert gave a tiny nod to his brother. Herringbone flexed his claws deeper into the shop cat’s belly.
“All right! All right, it was, uh, it was Dash,” Bunter wheezed.
“If you’re lying...”
“No, honest. It was your buddy Dash. I swear on my mother. Said he needed a peace offering for Big Pussy, something about a problem with a dame.”
“So he bought this cheap ass toy?”
“It’s not the price of the mouse, but the magic in it. Like I said, that’s primo nip. Besides, he said pink was Big Pussy’s favorite color. Dash wanted to keep it on the down low, didn’t want his buddies making fun of him for sucking up to a House cat.”
“Who’s the pretty kitty?” spat Norbert.
“He didn’t say. Just some broad.”
Norbert glowered at the nip pusher, thought it over. If Dash had kitty problems, that meant a cathouse. If the kitty problem also involved Big Pussy, the cathouse in question could only be Lady Vane’s Top Cats. He glanced at Herringbone and said, “Let him up.”
Herringbone released Bunter, but stayed close by. The shop cat got to his feet and made a show of checking for injuries.
“That’s no way to treat a friend, Norbert. No way at all. I always thought you was a stand-up cat.” Bunter shook out his fur. “You know where the door is. And do us both a favor. Don’t come back.”
Norbert and Herringbone were trotting to the mouth of the alley when dark shapes blocked their progress. A shadow separated from the mass and stepped into the dim circle of the streetlamp.
“Norbert Doan,” purred Maximillian. As he spoke, the shadows spread out and formed a ring around Norbert and Herringbone. The two brothers crouched low in the center.
“Looking to get your paws on some more poisoned nip, take out another Housecat boss?” The Manx ran a paw through his whiskers. “Good thing we got here when we did. The Cat-o-Nines will be pleased to know the families can rest easy.”
“That’s a lie. I didn’t kill him.” Norbert laid his ears flat against his skull. “And you’re not God on the throne, Maximillian. You’re just a cheap political boss with more hairball tonic than brains.”
Maximillian nodded at Herringbone. “Been keeping some low class company, I see.”
“Shut up. Yer fancy pants, all of ya.” Herringbone sneered.
“Whoa. Check out the balls on this kid. We’ll see how ballsy you are after they’re done with you.” A ripple traveled through the Wimsey thugs. They inched closer.
Norbert and Herringbone hunkered down, prepared to fight. Without warning, a chunky Angora launched himself at Norbert. Herringbone leaped over his brother to intercept. Claws unsheathed, he slashed at the Angora, sliced open his cheek. The rest of the Wimseys jumped in and the fight was on. Screams and yowls filled the alleyway as the fur flew. Buried under the mound of spitting, clawing toughs, Norbert and Herringbone fought for their lives.
The brawl had reached a fever pitch when a scratchy voice called from the street, “Cheese it! It’s the dogs!”
The Wimseys scattered, leaving the bloodied bodies of Norbert and Herringbone on the filthy ground. Seconds later, a small, twitchy black cat peered around the corner of the brick building. Once sure the coast was clear, the cat trotted over.
“Scraps! Herringbone! Get up!” He prodded their unconscious heaps.
Norbert cracked open an eye. He struggled to his feet, shook his head to clear it. “Buttons? What the hell are you doing here?”
“Saving your furry asses. Damn it Herringbone, wake up.” He nudged the battered calico, who began to stir. “We gotta get out of here, Scraps. Once the Wimseys figure out there ain’t no dogs, they’ll be back.”
Herringbone dragged himself upright. “Buttons is right. Let’s get a move on.”
The three cats left the alley while Buttons told them what he knew.
“All the GalleyCats have checked in. It don’t sound like any of the other families had anything to do with Big Pussy’s murder. Just wish I’d found you before the Wimseys jumped you.”
Norbert licked a nasty gouge on his haunch, then looked up at Buttons. “Where’s Dash?”
“I left him back at The Bird Cage Bar.”
“He didn’t seem…different?”
“Nervous, worried, anything unusual.”
“Sure, he was. Nervous and worried about you, my friend. Exactly how you’d expect him to be.” Buttons cocked an ear. “So where we headed next?”
“Lady Vane’s Top Cats.”
Buttons nodded and they set off to catch the Orient Avenue express.
Lady Vane’s parlor was a study in scarlet velvet. She was not, however, pleased with the tomcats. “Really. You come here looking like that,” she jabbed a knitting needle at Norbert’s shredded ear, “and then you ask impertinent questions about our clientele. We do not kiss and tell here. Disgusting. Wait, was that knit one, purrl two or knit two, purrl one? Oh mouse turds, now I have to start over.” She pulled several stitches out of the cashmere tea cozy she was knitting and glared at the cats.
The toms tried everything they could to change her mind, but the madam wouldn’t budge. As they left Lady Vane’s parlor, a door down the hall cracked open and a sultry female voice called to them. Norbert glanced around, then altered course.
“Yes?” Norbert saw a flash of fabulous fur through the crack.
“You were asking about Dash?”
“Yeah, what’s it to ya?” snarled Herringbone.
“Sorry - it’s been a long night. Yes, we were asking about Dash,” said Norbert.
The door opened wider and the three cats slipped into the room.
“Hellooo, kitty,” merowed Buttons.
The kitty, a stunning Burmese, ignored him and focused on Norbert.
“What do you want to know?” she purred.
“Oh, I’m Tawny Kitten - call me Tawny. And you are?”
“Norbert Doan. This is Herringbone and Buttons. I understand Dash and Big Pussy had some kind of kitty problem. Know anything about that?”
“It’s a sensitive situation, requires a certain amount of discretion.” Tawny blinked at Norbert, glanced at the other two toms.
“Why don’t you two step outside.” Norbert waited until they left. “Well?”
“You’re with the Wimseys, right? I’m surprised you haven’t heard already.
Let’s just say your friend Dash made a big faux pas. He couldn’t have known, but still…” Tawny lit a fresh stick of albacore incense as she spoke.
“Listen, kitty, I don’t have time to play cat and mouse. Cut to the chase.”
“Big Pussy was a regular here. Had an exclusive with Sweetie Pie.”
“Big Pussy had some…unusual proclivities. He had a special costume made for Sweetie Pie.”
“What’s so terrible about that?”
Tawny leaned in and whispered, “He had her dress up like a poodle with a cheap rhinestone collar and a pink tam. And that’s not the worst of it.”
Norbert couldn’t imagine how it could be any worse, but signaled her to continue.
“After Sweetie Pie was all dressed up, he’d make her watch Citizen Kane. He called her his little rosebud. I think he really cared about her, but dressing her up like a poodle?” She shuddered. “A couple of nights ago, Dash saw Sweetie Pie in her costume and made some highly regrettable remarks. He didn’t know she was Big Pussy’s kitty, see? He figured it out pretty quick when Maximillian the Manx showed up to punch his ticket.”
“I don’t get it. How did Dash manage to walk away from that?”
Tawny shrugged her sleek chocolate shoulders. “He must’ve had something better to offer than a fresh corpse.”
A storm had moved in, so they took the sewers back to The Bird Cage Bar. As they limped along, Norbert fumed.
“Maximillian must’ve decided he was tired of being second in command. He used Dash to help him murder Big Pussy and then framed me for it. I can’t believe I ever called that bastard my friend.”
“Ah, Scraps, don’t be like that. I can’t believe Dash would do that.” Herringbone squeezed through the bars of a slime-coated grate.
“What? You think Maximillian let him live because of his good looks? No way. Dash helped him kill Big Pussy.”
“I don’t like it, Norbert.” Button’s left whiskers spasmed. “I'm not talking about what you did at the cathouse - you did what you had to do. I'm talking about what you wanna do now right now.”
“Look, we know Dash bought the mouse with the poisoned catnip from Bunter. He was also the only one besides you two who knew I was meeting with Big Pussy today. He’s in the soup, all right. In it up to his neck.”
“He’s right. Something’s hinky,” said Herringbone.
The cats emerged from a storm drain half a block from The Bird Cage. Intent on reaching their destination, they didn’t notice the trap until it was too late. Norbert heard Buttons yowl a warning, then pain blossomed through his skull. His vision grayed and then went black.
A blast of cold water in the face snapped Norbert to consciousness.
“Wake up.” A hard kick to the ribs accompanied the words.
Norbert groaned and opened his eyes. A familiar silhouette loomed over him, outlined against the harsh glare of a theatrical lighting rig.
“Maximillian? ” asked Norbert. The Manx planted another one on Norbert’s flank.
“Not such a smart ass now, are you?” Maximillian unsheathed his claws, lifted his paw high over his head. Before he could strike, a red and white blur hurtled across the room and into the Manx. The cats tumbled against a wooden cutout of a giant mushroom, knocked the stage prop over. A moment later, Herringbone had the Manx pinned to the floor. Herringbone glared at his captive, then dropped his head. His whole body trembled.
Norbert labored to his feet. “Herringbone?”
Herringbone’s muscular frame convulsed violently. Then he raised his head and howled in glee. Max slid out of the stranglehold and placed a paw on Herringbone’s shoulder. The two toms leaned against each other, doubled over in laughter.
“Get a load of his face,” said Max.
Unable to stop speak, Herringbone nodded.
“Priceless! Hey, kid, what’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?”
Norbert looked first at his brother, then at Max. “I don’t understand.”
His words sent the other two cats into hysterics.
“Herringbone, what the hell’s wrong with you?”
“Nothin’.” Herringbone’s grin faded. “Not an ever-lovin’ thing, Norbert. Everything’s exactly the way it should be.”
“Enough, Herringbone. The Cat-o-Nines has some business to conduct with your brother. Something about a wannabe fancy-pants murdering a mob boss,” said Maximillian.
The pieces started falling into place. “Dash didn’t have anything to do with this, did he? It was you. You and the Manx were behind all this. My own brother set me up and sold me out.”
Herringbone winked his good eye and clapped his paws together. “Bravo, brother. Bravo. Scraps here has finally come clean about his parentage, and in front of nine other witnesses.” As he spoke the stage curtain lifted to reveal a row of nine cats in front of the footlights.
Maximillian padded to center stage and addressed the tribunal. “You just heard Norbert Doan admit he is not the cat he claimed to be. In fact, he’s an Alleycat born with the name Scraps, who has been passing himself off as one of us. Worse, he is responsible for the murder of our beloved Big Pussy. The Wimseys family has presented proof of his crimes. We leave the matter in your paws.” He bowed, then retreated to stand next to Norbert.
The elderly Russian Blue representing the Lehane family read from the document before him. “Your brother has provided us with your birth certificate and a copy of your adoption papers, Norbert. We also have the murder weapon and a sworn deposition from Bunter, The Fish Bowl shop cat. Bunter states that you bought a pink mouse filled with catnip from him after inquiring as to the availability of arsenic. Ambition is a forgivable sin. Murder is not.”
“But why would I kill Big Pussy? I had no reason to want him dead,” said Norbert
“Since when does an Alley cat need a reason?” sneered the Rebus clan’s delegate.
“Big Pussy wanted peace with the Alley cats. Why would I want to stand in the way of that?”
“Because you couldn’t afford to take the chance one of your Alley cat friends would reveal your secret. It is the decision of the Cat-o-Nines that you be sentenced to death by sacking. You will be placed in a burlap sack, taken to the river and held under water until dead. This sentence is to be carried out immediately.” The Russian Blue nodded at Maximillian.
Maximillian and Herringbone moved to grab Norbert, but he was too quick. He sidestepped them and made a run for the curtains. He soared the last few steps and started clawing his way up. He could hear the cats snarling below him. He pushed his ruined body to climb faster.
At the top of the curtains, Norbert hesitated for a split second and then threw himself at the catwalk. Arms and legs windmilled, finally finding purchase in the mesh floor. Norbert chanced a look over his shoulder.
Herringbone had reached the top of the curtains and was preparing to launch himself at the rigging. Maximillian was right behind him. Norbert ignored his screaming muscles and poured on the steam.
“Hey! Scraps! Over here,” yelled Buttons from the balcony.
Norbert hit the end of the catwalk in a flat out run, pushed off hard and plummeted toward the cheap seats. He landed badly, his left hind leg twisting underneath him. Buttons raced over, hauled him up.
“C’mon.” Buttons sprinted to the back of the balcony with Norbert hot on his tail. He ran down the hallway, squeezed through the bathroom door and bounded from the sink to a small window above the toilet.
Norbert landed on the windowsill, his injured leg in agony. Then Herringbone burst into the bathroom and tackled him. The momentum carried the entwined cats out of the window and onto the tar-papered roof.
They spun in a cyclone of teeth and claws as the storm raged overhead. Herringbone slashed at Norbert’s wounded leg, flipping him onto his back when the leg gave way. He lunged for Norbert’s belly, but a small black streak rocketed over and intercepted the blow. Buttons collided with Herringbone and the cats gyrated off in a new orbit.
Punch drunk, Norbert wobbled to his feet. He stared up through the pouring rain at the long vertical sign for the Fat Cat Theater; saw they must be on top of the theater marquee. To his left, Buttons and Herringbone were still locked in a violent embrace. Dazed but determined, Norbert went to lend a paw to his friend.
Their two-to-one advantage was lost with the arrival of Maximillian. Buttons and Norbert fought back-to-back near the edge of the billboard, doing the slip ‘n slide on the rain-slicked roof. A distant clock tower chimed midnight.
“Shame about the show.” Buttons ducked a blow from the Manx.
“What?” Norbert snagged Herringbone’s flank, dodged a wicked left hook.
“The play. It was supposed to be a really good production.”
“What the hell are you talking about, Buttons?” Norbert took a nasty slice to the chest.
“They’re doing an adaptation of Curiouser and Curiouser: The Cheshire’s Tale.” Buttons feinted, landed a good one against Maximillian’s head.
“Jesus, Buttons! Helluva time to get all arty on me.”
“Too bad the play’s gonna close before it’s had a chance to open.”
“I wired it, Scraps. Whole thing’s gonna be a pile of dust in about thirty seconds. This building’s going down.”
Stunned, Norbert stared at his twitchy little friend. Herringbone took advantage of the distraction and slammed Norbert on his back. He wrapped his paws around his throat and squeezed.
Button’s words had gotten Maximillian’s attention, too. He faltered, stepped back from the fight. Buttons saw the opening and moved in. He danced behind the Housecat thug, then barreled into him. The Manx catapulted off the marquee into the busy street below. Maximillian hit the windshield of a passing SUV with a sickening crunch of bones and glass. Tires screeched on wet asphalt as the truck careened into the ticket office. The gas tank exploded moments later. The secondary explosion of Buttons’s bomb sent the entire building into convulsions. Wire cables supporting the marquee snapped and the structure tilted sharply toward the street. Metal screamed as the platform ripped away from brick, one bolt at a time.
Herringbone and Norbert slid to the brink of the roof, the calico’s paws still wrapped around Norbert’s throat. Wheezing for air, Norbert levered his hind legs against Herringbone’s chest and pushed hard. The Judas GalleyCat flew over the side of the marquee. Horrified, Norbert leaned over the edge and saw Herringbone clinging to a “C” in the headline for the play.
“Hang on, Herringbone.” Norbert reached for his brother.
Herringbone flashed a twisted smile as the letter gave way. He clambered furiously to the next letter and the next. He reached the end of the headline. The last letter wrenched free and he plummeted to the sidewalk.
Herringbone hit the sidewalk hard. He didn’t get up. Buttons joined Norbert at the rim of the marquee. Herringbone’s broken body was surrounded by a constellation of billboard letters. Buttons stared for a moment, an odd expression on his face.
“C-u-r-i-o-u…Ah, shit. He’s the cat that proves the cliché.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Angie Johnson-Schmit currently lives
in Arizona with her husband, two dogs and a turtle. A voice
actress for Coyote Radio Theater, she spends too much time
practicing silly voices.
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