Cries and Whiskers
By Clea Simon
Poisoned Pen Press Copyright © 2007 Clea Simon
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-59058-464-4
Day had broken, cold and gray. Exceedingly cold and gray, and I burrowed further into the snow for warmth. Sleep was the enemy, it meant death in this frozen world, but the desire to succumb was seductive. If I just let go, soon the cold would be gone, or at least I would no longer feel it. There would be stillness, a quiet drifting off. Peace.
But just then something damp touched my face, and I struggled to open my eyes. Round green eyes were close, too close, waiting for me to relax. To give in. Hypothermia had a gentle embrace, but I feared the fangs that went with those unblinking eyes. I opened my mouth to breathe, to call for help, and felt the touch of fur. The green eyes leaned in.
"Kitty!" My Jack London dream burst. I wasn't on the Yukon trail, buried in a snowdrift with my sled dogs. I was in bed, with-I sputtered-cat hair on my lip. "Musetta!" I spit and reached out from under the covers to wipe who-knew-what from my mouth. The kitty in question-my black and white Musetta-drew back, but only to the edge of the fluffy white duvet we shared. The room was freezing, and those round eyes were indeed staring, full of accusation. She was furious, but I couldn't help smiling. Puffed up against the cold, that offending paw now tucked beneath her white tuxedo front, my pet appeared even rounder than usual. Only the off-center white spot on her nose disrupted the symmetry, making her look ever so slightly cross-eyed and so adorable. But no less pissed. Those eyes were ruthless: I was the boss of our little pride, so such inclement weather was my fault, endangering us both. She'd been within her rights to wake me, with nose and paw or any means necessary. She was waiting.
"Hang on." Dreading the shock of the bare wood floor, I swung my legs around her, and pranced gingerly toward the window, slamming it shut as another blast of icy wind and, yes, some snow, blew into the room. At thirty-three, I still lived like a student, a result of budget as much as preference. But this one wasn't my fault. I remembered opening that window, hours before. I'd come back from a show, the band's bassist a friend of a friend, and while the music had been unremarkable, a lousy sound mix swamping whatever hooks there were in the mud of distortion, something had inspired me to take notes. And while I'd been trying to write, pecking away at my computer keyboard, the heat had kicked in full blast, turning my one-bedroom apartment into a sweat box. Musetta had been thrilled when I'd cracked the window then, jumping up on the sill to sniff at the night air.
But that had been hours ago. The radiator was cold now and silent, without the clanking that preceded the flood of steam into its antique pipes. Maybe the super had actually re-set a thermostat somewhere in this big ugly box of a building? Or could something have gone wrong? The giant furnace in the basement had a reputation as a temperamental monster, a creaking remnant from decades past, and it also had an entire brick apartment building to heat-six floors of renters. The whole place was falling apart-bit by bit, just out of neglect. Someday the management would kick us out, would sell the building for condos. A nasty thought crept into my sleepy mind.
"They wouldn't let us go without heat in January, would they?" That illegal, but effective, move had been tried before elsewhere. "Think they'll try to freeze us out, Musetta?" I always talk to cats. Who knows how much they understand? Besides, I wanted some sympathy in our mutual plight. But all I saw was her sleek black back. Although one ear shifted slightly, she didn't deign to answer.
I peeked around the blind. Outside my Cambridge apartment, the streetlights were still on. In their glow, I could see the snow turning slick, shifting into the kind of freezing rain that would glaze the city I loved with a deadly beauty. Already, the tree out front sparkled with a coating of ice, and the road below glistened. New England in January: pretty, but treacherous for any poor creature stuck in the storm. And too cold for me. I grabbed the cat-who gave a small protesting "meh!"-and snuggled back under the comforter, trying to find the warmth I'd left. That was one of the pleasures of city living. Someone else in the building would deal with the heat, or the super if that was necessary. With any luck, by the time I was ready to get up, the radiator would be hot again, steaming my worries away. I curled around Musetta and she gave up a purr, grudging, maybe, but steady. I stroked her smooth head and nestled closer, my dark red hair falling over her black bulk. Her nose, still cold and wet, settled against my arm as her head dipped down and we slept.
* * *
The phone woke me what seemed like moments later. The phone, and Musetta kicking free in reaction. I followed her bouncing jodhpurs into the living room, rubbing my eyes. Yes, the room was warm. Time must have passed. My own dry mouth confirmed the functioning of the radiator.
"Nyah?" I needed coffee.
"Theda, you awake?" It was Violet. "Stupid question, sorry. It's not even eight. But Theda, if you can wake up, I need you."
Violet knew my hours-and my caffeine addiction-as well as anyone. She's a musician, but we'd met when she'd been working as a barrista at my local coffee house, the Mug Shot, and I had just started freelancing. Now I write about music and by choice I write at night, Vi's band gigs regularly, and we both share a social life that centers around the Boston-Cambridge club scene. This was way too early, and she knew it.
"Hang on." I leaned into the tiny alcove the landlord called a kitchenette and filled a glass at the sink. Two gulps later and my tongue worked. "Okay." I could hear Violet humming to herself, one of her own songs probably. "Okay, I'm awake now. What's up?"
"Huh?" Since leaving the Mug Shot, Violet ran a small local shelter for her day job. Usually her charges kept the same hours she did.
"I'm not sure, but I think we've got a cat-trapping emergency. Caro's working out in Amherst all week, and of course my drummer's got our van. Can you help?"
I looked over at Musetta, who had settled onto my old sofa. With her feet tucked under and her eyes already starting to close again, she was the picture of a contented feline. But she'd been a shelter cat once, and, before that, a homeless kitten. I thought of last night's storm.
"Give me twenty minutes to get dressed and pick up some coffee?"
"Thanks, Theda. I wouldn't turn down a large French roast, and maybe a lemon poppyseed muffin if they've got 'em."
* * *
When I pulled up at the old Victorian that housed both my friend and the Lillian Helmhold House for Wayward Cats a half hour later, bag of muffins propped between two travel mugs, Violet was waiting out front. Caro-Violet's partner and a jill-of-all-trades carpenter-contractor-had reinforced the old house's sagging gutters and replaced its missing shutters. She'd even painted the three-story building, home to Caro and Vi and more than two dozen felines, in a lively palette of greens and golds. But although it glowed in comparison to the brick block next door, the grand old dame was no match for the diminutive purple-haired punk on the sidewalk. In deference to the icy cold, Violet had a bright red ear-warmer wrapped around her head, one that made her spiked locks stand up straighter. In a day-glo orange parka she looked like an elf gone bad.
"Damn, I hate winter." As she clambered into my old Toyota, I could see that her nose matched the ear-wrap. She grabbed a mug and took a swig. "Ah, thanks." Popping a piece of muffin between chattering teeth, she looked back out at the street. "This is brutal."
"Slick, too. I fishtailed when I turned onto Putnam. At least the sleet has stopped. Where to?"
"Down by the river. You know where the old bottling plant is?" I nodded. Punctuating our neighborhood of triple deckers and the occasional red brick box, the towering "Industrial Space To Let" sign was a local landmark, the last bit of working-class Cambridgeport as drivers crossed over to Boston. "Good, this might be nothing, but when it's this cold out, I've got to check."
"Check on what?" Violet was cupping her hands over the heating vent, hoping for warmth I knew wouldn't start up for another ten minutes. I broke off a chunk of muffin, sour cream and poppy with a fresh, lemony tang, and pulled out, watching for the slick spots that indicated black ice.
"I got a call from Eva. You know, Luisa's mother?" I nodded, chewing. I didn't have a clear picture of the mother, but I remembered the shy, dark-haired girl who had adopted a huge, mellow tabby months before. "She's a nurse in the ER at Cambridge City and she was working the lobster shift when they brought in our old buddy, Gail Womynfriend."
I rolled my eyes. Gail was an animal rights activist, a cause I believed in-in principle. But Gail was so far out on the edge that she considered Violet's shelter work to be collusion with the enemy, those who would keep free animals enslaved. "Psychotic break?" I reached for more muffin while Violet held the bag.
"No, she'd been hit by a car. Hurt pretty badly, Eva said."
"Ticked-off breeder?" I was half serious. Gail didn't believe in propagating domestic animals, and wasn't averse to protesting. Loudly. "Someone at the university?" I remembered when the short, wiry-haired woman had "liberated" thirty lab rats and chained herself to their cages instead.
"Could be," Violet's voice turned quiet. At least her teeth were no longer chattering. "It was hit and run."
Just then I came up to the traffic circle under the BU bridge. We'd caught the tail end of the commuter rush, and I had to wait before accelerating into the shaded roundabout. The pavement had a suspicious sheen, and I could feel my rear wheels spin a moment before catching.
"The weather was pretty foul last night." My own near-skid reminded me. "It was probably an accident."
"Yeah, but to drive away? That's low."
"Maybe whoever it was didn't know they'd hit someone?" Violet looked over at me. I didn't believe it either. "No, you're right. That's horrible. But what's it got to do with cats?"
"Pull up here." We were getting close to a long, low industrial building, a dozen of its windows knocked out and covered in plywood, backed up against the riverside Memorial Drive. Mostly brick, with a base of granite blocks the size of my work desk, it was an impressive landmark. It used to be more. When I'd first come to Cambridge as a college freshman, fifteen years ago, this had been a thriving bottling plant, employing dozens of my neighbors. Last I'd heard, maybe a quarter of the big brick factory was occupied-small-scale software outfits and the like-and I had my pick of parking along the side street that led to the main entrance. We got out and I cupped my gloved hands around my insulated mug, following Violet up a cracked cement walkway.
"You know they're going to build condos here?" I didn't, but considering how fast my little city was changing I wasn't surprised. Cambridge, Boston's "left bank," was a realtor's wet dream. "One of Sally's friends was looking into renting the basement, turning it into practice spaces, when she got the word: no more rentals. So some of us started asking why. Gail was taking care of a colony of feral cats that live somewhere around here, and I think someone must have passed the news on. Last I heard, Gail was going to try to relocate them."
"I didn't realize she'd get that involved." Gail was a member of Animals Now, which as far as I could tell focused on making human lives hell in retribution for all our sins. "I mean, wouldn't she rather have killed the developer?"
"I wouldn't put it past her, if she had access to an ecologically sound weapon. But really, she wasn't that bad." Violet caught my look and shrugged. "I mean, we're basically on the same side, trying to save the animals and all." I bit back my response, taking a long swig of my swiftly cooling latté instead. Violet took in strays and often got them adopted as pets. She worked hard at teaching our Cambridgeport neighborhood about the need to spay and neuter. I'd heard Gail speak: she didn't believe in pets, and only supported neutering because we'd "corrupted" cats by domesticating them and she wanted the species to die out. Given her druthers, the intense little activist would have euthanized half the human population for revenge, and turned Cambridge into a sanctuary for the native possums, pigeons, and woodchucks.
Some of this must have shown on my face, despite the soft wool cap I'd pulled down over my eyebrows. "Whatever you think of her, she was doing good work," said Violet, leading me up a wide set of stairs. We reached a set of metal doors, secured with a chain and heavy padlock, and after tugging on their handles, Violet started back down. "There was a big colony living here and she'd asked me for some help."
I followed, draining the last of my coffee. "You? What about her coven?"
"I'm telling Bunny." Our friend Bunny's a Wiccan, but too softhearted for anyone outside of liberal-lefty Cambridge to call a witch. Violet walked along the building's brick and granite front, stopping occasionally to peek under the sad yews that passed for foundation shrubbery. "Anyway, I think Gail had a falling out with the Animals Now guys. She called me to ask about humane trapping. I figured she wanted to do TNR. You know, trap, neuter, return? But then she said something about moving the cats. I thought she meant fostering them, trying to turn them into pets, and I made some suggestions. She just lost it. Said I was trying to pervert nature. Screamed about letting them be. Then, when I heard about the condo plan, I realized she must have meant getting them out of here before the bulldozers come."
Tagging along after, I wondered how long that would be. The sprawling factory complex took up almost an acre along the river. With that view and so close to the universities and Boston right across the Charles, condos here could go for a million easy.
"I can't believe this old place has lasted so long."
"Development rights. And some of us in the neighborhood have been lobbying for a park." She smiled, and I wondered just how active that "lobbying" had been. Our Cambridgeport neighborhood, nestled into a bend of the river, served as a microcosm of the city: students and professors shared blocks, and often buildings, with new immigrants from Asia and Africa, while older communities of Cape Verdeans and Haitians added their traditions to the mix. Usually, we all found some way to get along. With a population this tightly packed, we'd better. But these days the uniting factor tended to be resentment toward developers, the speculators and big-money investors who wanted to turn our little city by the Charles into the next Gold Coast.
Not that any realtors were going to stroll by on a subzero morning like this. I stamped my feet on the concrete; my toes were going numb. Whatever their prospects for the future, the old building's remaining windows were blank today. My hopes of a hot caffeine refill faded.
"So, what are we looking for?" Violet was on her knees peering under a hedge.
"Oh yeah. Sorry. Cats. Cats and traps. Eva said she didn't have a chance to breathe until her shift ended, but she called as soon as she could. Gail was in pretty bad shape when they brought her in, but I guess she recognized Eva. I don't know, from the shelter, or just from around. Maybe she was delirious. Anyway, she reached up and grabbed Eva when they were taking her into surgery. 'Cats,' she said. 'Get the cats out.' Eva couldn't get anything else out of her, not in the few seconds she had. Probably Gail was just out of it, but Eva called and asked if there was something going on that I should be aware of, something with the shelter. And that's when I thought about the trapping. If Gail had been out here, maybe trying to move the cats before the storm, maybe she set some traps. Any cats out in this weather wouldn't last another night. I mean, they can deal with a lot of cold, but not if their fur gets wet. So I told her we'd have a look around, see if we could find any traps and free any animals that might be inside. It's a long shot, but even with a fur coat, this is no weather for any living creature."
Excerpted from Cries and Whiskers by Clea Simon Copyright © 2007 by Clea Simon. Excerpted by permission.
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