CAT LADY

Cat Lady marks Susan Taitel’s first professional sale. We expect to see more of her work in the months to come.

***

Another missing cat. Sixth one this week.

A handsome seal point gazes disdainfully from the flyer. I tear the page from the tree, return to my Toyota, and take my collection of flyers from the glovebox. Fanning them out on the dash, I search for a pattern. All of the cats went missing from Uptown or Loring Park. All appear healthy and attentively groomed in the pictures. All of the owners have offered a reward between two hundred and one thousand dollars. One or two lost cats doesn’t signify much, but six? My hackles are raised…pardon the pun.

After a brief rehearsal, I dial the number on the most recent flyer.

“Oh my god, you found him?” an anxious female voice asks.

“I’m sorry, no, but I was hoping I could speak to you in person.”

“Why, exactly?” The cat’s owner is justifiably suspicious.

“I believe I can find your cat, but I need to have a look at his environment.”

“And you are?”

“My name is Vivian Kotek. I’m a detective.” Kinda sorta.

“I’m not looking to hire a detective.”

“All I want is the reward if I find him.”

The owner identifies herself as Brenda and gives me an address near the Greenway. The concierge eyes me warily before buzzing me in. Maybe I should’ve changed out of my work clothes before coming over.

“This is his nest.” Brenda gestures to a cardboard box lined with a threadbare towel. Next to it stands a virtually pristine, ultra-plush carpeted cat tree. “Those are his toys.” She points out a feathered wand and several hand-felted mice. “He loves bottle caps too, but I worry about BPAs, you know?”

“Of course.” I nod. “Did you get him from a breeder?”

“No, Gene was a shelter rescue. Louise too.” She inclines her head toward a bookshelf, where a gray tabby peers down with feigned disinterest. “Poor thing is sick with worry.”

At these words, Louise drops from her perch and casually leaves the room.

“Any idea how he got out?”

“I don’t know! I don’t let either of them near the door when it’s open. The balcony is always locked. He’s not an adventurous cat.”

“Uh-hm,” I agree, biting my tongue. Trying to pin down a cat’s personality is like tying a ribbon on a wave.

I ask Brenda a few questions about Gene’s eating and sleeping habits, his relationship with Louise, if he’d been acting strangely, etc. Then I have a look around the small but upscale one bedroom. There are no obvious escape points. I note the accumulation of bottle caps and hair ties behind the combination washer-dryer. Gene had secrets. Well done, Gene.

All appears normal. Which unsettles me. It’s possible Gene is a feline Houdini, but my instincts say otherwise.

All appears normal at the next three houses as well. None of the owners know how their cat got out. They all woke up to find an absence of cat. With no signs of how it escaped. No doors left open and not a cat-flap in sight. They’ve put up flyers, posted on message boards, and offered rewards. To no avail. All are concerned and anxious. All simply want their cats home safe. I want the same. And if I collect a few rewards along the way? I can pay my bills, fill my gas tank to the top for once, and prove to my mother that I don’t need to move back to Brainerd.

A ripped window screen in the basement at the fourth house hints at a conventional disappearance. As does the mangled robin corpse left near a gap in the backyard fence. I take kitty number four off my roster.

At the fifth house, I’m shown a photo of a bundle of white fur named Ophelia. The owner is beside himself.

“A Persian?” I ask, examining the photo.

“Yes.” It’s a pricy breed. That could be a factor, but none of the others were purebred.

“How old is she?”

“Nine weeks.” He sniffles into a hankie. “She must be so scared.”

“I’m sure she’s fine.” She’s definitely not fine.

“But she’s an indoor kitty. I don’t know how this happened.”

I pat his arm, making nebulous comforting sounds. I still haven’t found a pattern. What am I missing?

His other cat, a hairless sphinx, jumps into his lap with a concerned “mrr.” The owner absentmindedly strokes Horatio’s wrinkled pink skin.

“Are you allergic to cat hair?” I ask.

“My ex was. But I wanted a cat so much we compromised and got a hairless breed. I got Ophelia as soon as we broke up. She sheds like crazy, but she’s just so cute.” His voice catches.

The pieces drop into place. The thief took Ophelia but ignored her more valuable, but bald, housemate. Louise, a garden-variety American Shorthair, was also left behind. The one thing all the missing cats have in common is their full, luxurious coats. The catnapper likes them fluffy!

***

I call in a favor with an ex who lives dead center of the disappearing-cat-zone. Okay, I don’t call in a favor so much as break into his condo. But he owes me one, and he’s always at a conference this time of year.

I spend most of the day planting evidence of cat residency all over Chris’s condo. A litter box here, a well-dented, cat hair coated pillow there. Toys and paper bags strewn over the rug. Claw marks on the door frame and couch. Chris won’t be happy about that, but what the hell…Chris is a weasel. I should eat all of his fancy cheese.

At sundown, I bait my trap. I remove my clothes and let my body shrink and contort. Four legs, a tail, downy ears, the works. I take a strut in front of Chris’s mirrored closet, admiring the long tortoiseshell coat I’ve willed up. Normally I go ginger shorthair, for ease of care, but I’ll be damned if this isn’t working for me. I give it several go-overs with tongue and paws to maximize the floof.

My mom would be so happy to know I was putting a little effort into my appearance. Of course, that would mean calling her. Which would mean listening to a gently-worded lecture on the dangers facing a young shapeshifter in the big city. Dangers she can’t possibly know about since she’s never lived more than one house away from her parents. My dad’s parents are in the house between. All four of her siblings live across the street and the next few blocks are mostly first and second cousins. She doesn’t understand why I want to live somewhere I have a chance of socializing outside my gene pool. I do miss her pierogi though. I’ve yet to find any in the Cities as good as hers.

Nothing to do now but wait and see if the cat thief appears. To keep myself occupied I run a few laps across the condo; under the bed, over the dresser, and through the vertical blinds. Then take some pleasure in unraveling the toilet paper roll. I’ve always been a method actor.

I give up the watch at dawn. No point, all the cats went missing at night. I get a few hours of sleep before my shift at the groomers. It’s a slow day. I get a decent tip for shearing a badly matted Pomeranian but the rest of the day is just shampoo, rinse, repeat. If I don’t find one or two of the missing cats I’ll be able to pay my rent, but groceries are off the table.

During my break, my best work-friend, Candace, shows me a compilation video of cats being startled by cucumbers. They leap and flail and trip over themselves while running away. It’s got over ninety million views. Between customers, we go on a cat-video binge. Cats knocking things off ledges. Cats falling off tables. Cats attacking walls for no reason. Even celebrity cats who do tricks. Candace laments that her cat’s only trick is somehow managing to pee on the floor from inside his litter box.

When I get back to Chris’s street, I find a new flyer on a signpost. A cat went missing last night from a house one block over. Judging by the thick ruff, it’s part Siberian or Main Coon. It fits the profile. I call the owner and ask a few questions. No history of running away, no obvious escape point. It happened again, right under my nose.

I change into cat form and curl up in Chris’s front window. The one with a perfect view of the street. I groom myself in the late afternoon sun. I stay in the window as long as possible, preening.

Once the sun has completely sunk below the horizon, I get to patrolling. I trot the perimeter of the condo for hours, searching for anything out of the ordinary.

A little past three a.m., I hear something. A faint scraping coming from an air vent near the ceiling. I inch under the log stand in the fireplace Chris never uses. A little man, around four inches tall, wriggles through the vent, ass first. He skitters down the wall like a gecko, a limp sack slung over his shoulder. His head is too big for his spindly body and covered in sea urchin–like spikes. My ears twitch in anticipation. He hasn’t spotted me yet. Keeping one hand on the wall, he makes his way to my last napping spot. He scoops up a handful of fur from the rug and sniffs it. He runs it along his cheek. He nods, takes a look around, and spies me in the fireplace.

The creature moves toward me and my back fur bristles. I swat at him, he dodges. I don’t want him near me, his scent is acrid and rude. He smells like danger. Forgetting my mission, I display my claws and hiss. Instead of fleeing, as a wise creature of his size should, the little man reaches into his sack. Smiling a too-wide smile, he holds up a tiny silver hammer and disk. He beats the hammer against the disk, producing a tinkling beat. Slow then fast, slow then fast. Tink, tink, tink. Tink-tink, Tink-tink. The man dances in circles to his own tattoo.

Unwilling, I creep out from the logs. The tink, tink, tink of the hammer draws me forth. It’s undeniable, inevitable. I must go to the little man.

Tink-tink, tink-tink.

A snare closes around me.

Tink, tink, tink.

***

This is humiliating.

By the time the compulsion wore off, I was already in a cage. A cage in a kitchen. A cage in a kitchen in a restaurant run by trolls.

Utterly humiliating.

Humility is not a concept often associated with cats, but I’m not a true cat, just a shapeshifter with an affinity for felines. Naturally, I can’t return to human in such a confined space.

The little spiky guy sold me to a troll chef for a bottle of ten-year-old port. Honestly, I’m worth at least a twenty year.

It’s bad enough we’re going to be eaten, Fred the Ragdoll in the next cage sniffs. Must you subject us to your self-pity?

He’s right, wallowing isn’t going to fix my troll problem. Trolls in the Twin Cities, pretty sure that’s new. There were trolls in the Old Country, according to Granny Kotek. It was one of the reasons our ancestors emigrated. That and the pogroms.

On the upside, I’ve found the lost cats. All except Ophelia the Persian kitten.

On the downside, we’re to be the filling to the enormous piecrust the troll chef is assembling.

On the so-far-down-it-may-as-well-be-underground-side, we’re also providing the sauce. Why is that worse than being minced and baked in a crust? It’s a hairball sauce.

Every few minutes, one of my fuzzy companion’s back will ripple, their shoulders roll, a noise resembling a misfiring lawnmower signals the intent, and SPLAT.

The chef then retrieves the deposit with a pair of tongs and adds it to the simmering pot of stomach acid and fur.

Before one gets too judgmental about the epicurean tastes of trolls, consider haggis.

I’m not seeing a way out of this. The cage openings are too small to smoosh through, even for such a smooshable creature as a cat. The inevitable question is why don’t I shift into a mouse or a fly? I only do cats. It’s a mental block. I’ve tried other animals, but the closest I’ve gotten is a furry, four-legged catfish. My brother Elliot calls it shapeshifter dyslexia. I look at it as an asset, not a liability. I’m a specialist.

And look at the heights to which it’s taken me.

The chef adds a troll-sized handful of smoked herring to the sauce pot. A few chunks fall to the floor. A tiny white paw shoots from under the oven and snatches them. I almost chuckle but it would sound like I’m contributing to the sauce.

I have to wait twenty minutes, but the chef finally trudges out of the kitchen on some errand.

Ophelia. Opheeeeeelia, I coo.

A dusty fluff-ball emerges.

***

How did you get out of the cage, Ophelia? I swish my tail. Even with as high a fur-to-flesh ratio as hers, she couldn’t have fit more than a paw through the bars.

What cage? I’m not in a cage. Are you in a cage? She blinks adorably.

Who me? Maybe. Probably by choice. If I were to choose not to be in a cage, how might I do that?

Ophelia flops onto her side and stares blankly.

I’m sure it was a very clever escape. I wish I had seen it.

It was. She flicks her tail on the linoleum.

If I currently had fingers and could reach her, I’d wring her precious neck.

Little one, we don’t have time for games. The troll could return at any minute. How did you get out?

She curls inward and begins grooming her stomach.

Ophelia! Desperation is such an ugly look on a cat.

Leave it, Miss Elinor Scratchwood, a calico, interjects. The infant probably forgot how she did it in the first place.

Did not! Ophelia glares at her. I got the door thingy open with my paw.

She undid the latch with her paw? I already tried that. I could reach the latch through the bars, but I couldn’t turn the knob and push the rod at the same time. Cat paws don’t work like that.

Impossible, Miss Elinor taunts.

Not for me. Ophelia stretches, splaying her front paws. Each bears an extra toe. The fuzzy little freak has opposable thumbs!

I flex my own paws, willing myself to grow an additional toe. That does the trick. I drop to the floor, stretch my cramped but blessedly human again legs, and release the rest of the captives.

Unfortunately trying to get nine cats to follow a simple instruction is like…well exactly like trying to get nine cats to follow a simple instruction.

Imagine a cat who’s just been rescued from impending doom, what does that cat do? Quietly follow the nice naked lady to safety? Or knock over a giant piecrust and cause a ruckus to satisfy your need for furry vengeance? I think the answer is obvious.

The troll bursts back into the room. Roaring over the loss of his entree, he grabs a butcher’s knife. The cats scatter. The troll flashes me a murderous look and lunges. My bones expand, tendon and tissue mushrooming under my skin. Fur prickles into place. The troll hesitates.

One Bengal tiger vs. troll fight later, I’m walking up Hennepin Avenue, naked but for a very large chef’s coat, and trailed by eight bedraggled felines. Ophelia is hitching a ride in a pocket.

I lead them back to Chris’s, get dressed, and one by one return the cats. All but four. Gene has decided to stay with me. Brenda, he says is trainable, but Louise has made it clear she prefers to be a one cat household. There’s another three I don’t have flyers for. I asked them where home was, but the answers were less than illuminating. Unless someone can tell me where back of the closet, behind the tall shoes is. I collect nearly $2,000 in reward money. But after this month’s bills, food and supplies for my new—hopefully temporary—roommates, and the $300 I owe Chris for a new couch, I’m nearly broke again.

There’s always YouTube.

Copyright © 2018 by Susan Taitel