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Cat of Many Tails
By Ellery Queen
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1949 Little, Brown & Company
All rights reserved.
The strangling of Archibald Dudley Abernethy was the first scene in a nine-act tragedy whose locale was the City of New York.
Seven and one-half persons inhabiting an area of over three hundred square miles lost their multiple heads all at once. The storm center of the phenomenon was Manhattan, that "Gotham" which, as the New York Times pointed out during the worst of it, had been inspired by a legendary English village whose inhabitants were noted for their foolishness. It was a not entirely happy allusion, for there was nothing jocular in the reality. The panic seizure caused far more fatalities than the Cat; there were numerous injured; and what traumata were suffered by the children of the City, infected by the bogey fears of their elders, will not be comprehended until the psychiatrists can pry into the neuroses of the next generation.
In the small area of agreement in which the scientists met afterward, several specific indictments were drawn. One charged the newspapers. Certainly the New York press cannot disclaim some responsibility for what happened. The defense that "we give John Public the news as it happens, how it happens, and for as long as it happens," as the editor of the New York Extra put it, is plausible but fails to explain why John Public had to be given the news of the Cat's activities in such necrotic detail, embellished by such a riches of cartoonical crape and obituary embroidery. The object of this elaborate treatment was, of course, to sell more newspapers—an object which succeeded so admirably that, as one circulation manager privately admitted, "We really panicked 'em."
Radio was named codefendant. Those same networks which uttered approving sounds in the direction of every obsessionist who inveighed against radio mystery and crime programs as being the First Cause of hysteria, delinquency, seclusive behavior, idée fixe, sexual precocity, nailbiting, nightmare, enuresis, profanity, and other antisocial ills of juvenile America saw nothing wrong in thoroughly airing the depredations of the Cat, with sound effects ... as if the sensational were rendered harmless by the mere fact of its being not fiction. It was later charged, not without justice, that a single five-minute newscast devoted to the latest horror of the strangler did more to shatter the nerves of the listening population than all the mystery programs of all the networks percussively put together. But by that time the mischief was done.
Others fished deeper. There were certain elements in the Cat's crimes, they said, which plucked universal chords of horror. One was the means employed. Breath being life and its denial death, their argument ran, the pattern of strangulation was bound to arouse the most basic fears. Another was the haphazard choice of victims—"selection by caprice," they termed it. Man, they stated, faces death most equably when he thinks he is to die for some purpose. But the Cat, they said, picked his victims at random. It reduced the living to the level of the sub-human and gave the individual's extinction no more importance or dignity than the chance crushing of an ant. This made defenses, especially moral defenses, impossible; there was nowhere to hide; therefore panic. And still a third factor, they went on, was the total lack of recognition. No one lived who saw the terrorizer at his chill and motiveless work; he left no clues to his age, sex, height, weight, coloration, habits, speech, origin, even to his species. For all the data available, he might well have been a cat—or an incubus. Where nothing was to be perceived, the agitated imagination went berserk. The result was a Thing come true.
And the philosophers took the world view, opening casements to the great panorama of current events. Weltanschauung! they cried. The old oblate spheroid was wobbling on its axis, trying to resist stresses, cracking along faults of strain. A generation which had lived through two global conflicts; which had buried millions of the mangled, the starved, the tortured, the murdered; which rose to the bait of world peace through the bloody waters of the age and found itself, hooked by the cynical barb, of nationalism; which cowered under the inexplicable fungus of the atomic bomb, not understanding, not wishing to understand; which helplessly watched the strategists of diplomacy plot the tactics of an Armageddon that never came; which was hauled this way and that, solicited, exhorted, suspected, flattered, accused, driven, unseated, inflamed, abandoned, never at peace, never at rest, the object of pressures and contrary forces by the night and the day and the hour—the real victims of the universal War of Nerves ... it was no wonder, the philosophers said, that such a generation should bolt screaming at the first squeak of the unknown. In a world that was desensitized, irresponsible, threatened and threatening, hysteria was not to be marveled at. It had attacked New York City; had it struck anywhere in the world, the people of that place would have given way. What had to be understood, they said, was that the people had welcomed panic, not surrendered to it. In a planet shaking to pieces underfoot it was too agonizing to remain sane. Fantasy was a refuge and a relief.
But it remained for an ordinary New Yorker, a 20-year-old law student, to state the case in language most people could understand. "I've just been reading up on Danny Webster," he said. "In one case he was mixed up in, trial of a fellow named Joseph White, Webster tossed this one over the plate: Every unpunished murder takes away something from the security of every man's life. I figure when you live in our cockeyed kind of world, when some boogyman they call the Cat starts sloughing folks right and left and nobody can get to first base on it, and as far as Joe Schmo can see this Cat's going to keep right on strangling the population till there's not enough customers left to fill the left field bleachers at Ebbets Field—or am I boring you and by the way whatever happened to Durocher?" The law student's name was Gerald Ellis Kollodny and he made the statement to a Hearst reporter on sidewalk-interview assignment; the statement was reprinted in the New Yorker, the Saturday Review of Literature, andReader's Digest; M-G-M News invited Mr. Kollodny to repeat himself before its cameras; and New Yorkers nodded and said that was just about how it had stacked up.CHAPTER 2
August 25 brought one of those simmering subtropical nights in which summer New York specializes. Ellery was in his study stripped to his shorts, trying to write. But his fingers kept sliding off the keys and finally he turned off his desk light and padded to a window.
The City was blackly quiet, flattened by the pressures of the night. Eastward thousands would be drifting into Central Park to throw themselves to the steamy grass. To the northeast, in Harlem and the Bronx, Little Italy, Yorkville; to the southeast, on the Lower East Side and across the river in Queens and Brooklyn; to the south, in Chelsea, Greenwich Village, Chinatown—wherever there were tenements—fire escapes would be crowded nests in the smother, houses emptied, streets full of lackadaisical people. The parkways would be bug trails. Cars would swarm over the bridges—Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, Queensborough, George Washington, Triborough—hunting a breeze. At Coney Island, Brighton, Manhattan Beach, the Rockaways, Jones Beach, the sands would be seeded by millions of the sleepless turned restlessly to the sea. The excursion boats would be scuttling up and down the Hudson and the ferries staggering like overloaded old women to Weehawken and Staten Island.
Heat lightning ripped the sky, disclosing the tower of the Empire State Building. A huge photographic process; for the shutterflash of a city-sized camera taking a picture of the night.
A little to the south hung a bright spume. But it was a mirage. Times Square would be sweltering under it; the people would be in Radio City Music Hall, the Roxy, the Capitol, the Strand, the Paramount, the State—wherever there was a promise of lower temperatures.
Some would seek the subways. The coupled cars kept their connecting doors open and when the trains rushed along between stations there was a violent displacement of the tunnel air, hellish but a wind. The choice position was in the front doorway of the head car beside the motorman's cubicle. Here the masses would be thickest, swaying in a grateful catalepsy.
In Washington Square, along Fifth Avenue, 57th Street, upper Broadway, Riverside Drive, Central Park West, 110th Street, Lexington Avenue, Madison, the busses would accept the few and spurn the many and they would rush up and down, north and south, east and west, chasing their tails like ...
Ellery blundered back to his desk, lit a cigaret.
No matter where I start, he thought, I wind up in the same damned place.
That Cat's getting to be a problem.
He tilted, embracing his neck. His fingers slithered in the universal ooze and he tightened them, thinking that he could stand an over-all tightening. Nonskid thoughts. A new lining job on the will.
Ellery smoked, crookedly.
A great temptation.
In the Wrightsville Van Horn case Ellery had run into stunning treachery. He had found himself betrayed by his own logic. The old blade had turned suddenly in his hand; he had aimed at the guilty with it and it had run through the innocent. So he had put it away and taken up his typewriter. As Inspector Queen said, ivory tower stuff.
Unhappily, he had to share his turret with an old knight who jousted daily with the wicked. Inspector Richard Queen of the New York Police Department being also the unhorsed champion's sire, it was a perilous proximity.
"I don't want to hear about a case," Ellery would say. "Just let me be."
"What's the matter?" his father would jeer. "Afraid you might be tempted?"
"I've given all that up. I'm not interested any longer."
But that was before the Cat strangled Archibald Dudley Abernethy.
He had tried to ignore the murder of Abernethy. And for some time he had succeeded in doing so. But the creature's round little face with its round little eyes had an annoying way of staring out at him from his morning newspaper.
In the end he had brought himself up to date.
It was interesting, an interesting case.
He had never seen a less meaningful face. It was not vicious, or kind, or sly, or stupid; it was not even enigmatic. It was nothing, a rotundity, a 44-year-old fetus-face; one of nature's undeveloped experiments.
Yes, an interesting homicide.
And then the second strangling.
And the third.
The apartment door blupped!
Ellery jumped, banging his shin. He limped hurriedly to the living room.
"Hi there." Inspector Queen already had his jacket and necktie off; he was removing his shoes. "You look cool, son."
The Inspector looked gray.
"Tough day?" It was not the heat. The old man was as weatherproof as a desert rat.
"Anything on the ice, Ellery?"
"Lemonade. Quarts of it."
The Inspector shuffled into the kitchen. Ellery heard the icebox open and close. "By the way, congratulate me."
"Congratulate you on what?"
"On being handed today," said his father, reappearing with a frosty glass, "the biggest pig in the poke of my alleged—I say alleged—career." He threw his head back and drank. Throat showing, he looked even grayer.
"Well," said the Inspector, seating himself, "I'm now top dog in the Cat chase."
"You know, the Cat?"
Ellery leaned against the study jamb.
"The Commissioner called me in," said the Inspector, folding his hands about the glass, "and he told me he'd had the move under consideration for some time. He's creating a special Cat squad. I'm in full charge. As I said, top dog."
"Caninized." Ellery laughed.
"Maybe you find this situation full of yuks," said his father, "but as for me, give me liberty and lots of it." He drained what was left in the glass. "Ellery, I damn near told the Commissioner to his face today that Dick Queen's too old a bird to be handed a deal like this. I've given the P.D. a pretty full lifetime of faithful service. I deserve better."
"But you took it."
"Yes, I took it," said the Inspector, "and God help me, I even said, 'Thanks, Commissioner.' And then I got the feeling," he went on in a worried way, "that he had some angle he wasn't putting on the line and son, I wanted to duck out even more. I can still do it."
"You talking about quitting?"
"Well, I'm just talking. Anyway, you can't say you don't come by it honestly."
"Ourrrrch." Ellery went to one of the living room windows. "But it's not my brawl," he complained to New York. "I played around a little, that's all. For a long time I was lucky. But when I found out I was using loaded dice—"
"I see your point. Yes. And this crap game's for keeps."
Ellery turned around. "Aren't you exaggerating?"
"Ellery, this is an emergency."
"I said," said the old man, "an emergency."
"A few murders. Granted they're puzzling. That's hardly a new twist. What's the percentage of unsolved homicides? I don't understand you, Dad. I had a reason for quitting; I'd taken on something and I flubbed it, causing a death or two by the way. But you're a pro. This is an assignment. The responsibility for failure, if you fail, is the Commissioner's. And suppose these stranglings aren't solved—"
"My dear philosopher," said the Inspector, rolling the empty glass between his palms, "if these stranglings aren't solved, and damned quickly, something's going to pop in this man's town."
"Pop? In New York? How do you mean?"
"It hasn't really got going yet. Just signs. The number of phone calls to Headquarters asking for information, instructions, reassurance, anything. The increase in false alarm police calls, especially at night. The jitters of the men on duty. A little more all-around tension than there ought to be. A ..." the Inspector groped with his glass ... "a sort of concentration of interest on the part of the public. They're too interested. It isn't natural."
"Just because an overheated cartoonist—"
"Just because! Who cares a hoot in Hell Gate what's caused it? It's on its way, Ellery. Why is the only smash hit on Broadway this summer that ridiculous murder farce, The Cat? Every critic in town panned it as the smelliest piece of rat cheese to hit New York in five years, and it's the only show doing business. Winchell's latest is 'Cat-Astrophes.' Berle turned down a cat joke, said he didn't think the subject was funny. The pet shops report they haven't sold a kitten in a month. They're beginning to see the Cat in Riverdale, Canarsie, Greenpoint, the East Bronx, Park Row, Park Avenue, Park Plaza. We're starting to find alley cats strangled with cords all over the city. Forsythe Street. Pitkin Avenue. Lenox. Second. Tenth. Bruckner Boulevard—"
"Sure, we've even caught some of them at it. But it's a symptom, Ellery. A symptom of something that scares the stiffener out of me, and I'm man enough to admit it."
"Have you eaten anything today?"
"Five murders and the biggest city in the world gets the shakes! Why? How do you explain it?"
Ellery was silent.
"Come on," said the Inspector sarcastically. "You won't endanger your amateur standing."
But Ellery was only thinking. "Maybe," he said, "maybe it's the strange feel of it. New York will take fifty polio cases a day in its stride, but let two cases of Asiatic cholera break out and under the right conditions you might have mass hysteria. There's something alien about these stranglings. They make indifference impossible. When a man like Abernethy can get it, anyone can get it." He stopped. The Inspector was staring at him. "You seem to know a lot about it."
"Just what I've happened to catch in the papers."
"Like to know more? Worm's eye view?"
"Sit down, son."
Ellery sat down. After all, the man was his father.
"Five murders so far," said the Inspector. "All in Manhattan. All stranglings. Same kind of cord used in each."
"That tussah silk number? Indian silk?"
"Oh, you know that."
"The papers say you've got nowhere trying to trace them."
Excerpted from Cat of Many Tails by Ellery Queen. Copyright © 1949 Little, Brown & Company. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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