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HILLSIDE IS A SMALL Midwestern town lying among the green hills almost an equal distance from two great cities. In the summer of 1948 the town's chief claim to renown was the annual visit of a famous inventor. He had been known to spend at least one day out of every year with Andrew Mattson, who, legend had it, loaned him five hundred dollars to help finance his first invention.
It was little enough, the people said, referring to the visit. Some even wondered if he had ever repaid the five hundred dollars, for he parted with money uneasily and Andy lived a frugal life. Others said that Andy would have lived that way if he had had the inventor's millions, which, obviously, he did not ... Or did he? In any case, the inventor had died that spring, and throughout the state a thirty-day mourning period had been observed. But old Andy sat day after day in the sun on his front porch rubbing the soft neck of his cat with a leathery finger.
"Old Andy hasn't got much to look forward to in this world," the neighbors said.
"Or in the next if you ask me," Mabel Turnsby always added. "Hasn't set foot inside a church for seventy years."
No one ever asked her, but Mabel was a great one for opinions. She lived next door to Andrew Mattson, and at almost any hour of the day you could see her white knob of hair poking above the half curtains on her kitchen windows. Naturally, it was Mabel who called Chief of Police Waterman that day when Andy had not taken his customary place on the porch by noon.
"Maybe he's got a cold," the chief said. "Why don't you just be neighborly, and drop over and see him?"
"Me in his house?" said Mabel. "It wouldn't be proper."
"He's an old man," the chief said. He might have added that she was no chicken, but Waterman was a kind man. "Call it charity. Say you're collecting for the church."
"I did that thirty years ago," said Mabel, "and I'd like never to have been so humiliated. No. I'm not going near the place. It's your duty when a body reports something unusual."
"What's unusual about an old man staying in bed till noon?"
"And the cat. That's another thing, Fred Waterman. That cat's been at the window looking at me like it was human, pleading with me."
"Mabel, I don't like to be ornery about this," the chief said, "but I can't help thinking maybe your imagination's playing tricks again. Remember the fire on Pasteriki's barn roof?"
"You promised," she said. "You promised me you'd never mention that again."
On the occasion of which he spoke, Mabel had watched the smoke for half an hour. After she had turned in the alarm, she discovered it was from the smoke funnel on the toy factory, half a mile over the hill from Pasteriki's.
Before he hung up the chief agreed that if Mabel had not seen the old man by twelve-thirty he would stop by.
"I suppose that's how it'll happen one of these days," the chief said to Gilbert, his one assistant. "Andy's ninety-two. Go to lunch, boy. When you get back I'll drop over there."
Gilbert banged the screen door behind him, the door skipping its catch. Waterman was fastening it when the twelve o'clock siren sounded overhead, the noise of it surrounding him as though his head were in a bucket. It was about time they did something about the building. All the town offices were tucked in as tight as a picnic lunch in a shoe box, someone said at the last council meeting. There had been talk of floating a bond issue and building a separate police and fire department, and possibly a library. At the present time the library occupied the whole top floor of the two-story building. It was a bit snug, the mayor admitted, but he was not one for saddling the town with a debt for his comfort. That diverted the issue. Sometimes Altman had a way of diverting issues. His attitude irked the other officials who stayed in their offices from nine until five each day. The mayor spent very little time at the executive desk—two or three hours at most. The rest he devoted to his hardware store. This was only reasonable, he said, since the office was largely honorary, and by no means lucrative enough to meet the needs of his wife and six children.
The men felt much the same about their incomes from the town, but prices were not high, comparatively, in Hillside, and they got by on it. Their real complaint was the lack of space and air where they had to work, and the mayor's attitude.
Chief Waterman went outdoors and sat down on the steps where he could hear the telephone. Agnes Baldwin, the mayor's secretary, was calling the librarian from the bottom of the stairs.
"Miss Woods. Oh, Miss Woods. It's after twelve."
Agnes came out twirling a key impatiently. She had to lock up that wing of the building during the noon hour.
"Ain't the siren loud enough for her?" the chief said.
"She always does this," said Agnes. "Waits till the siren blows and then picks up."
Presently Miss Woods came out, brushing half a dozen children out ahead of her. "Tomorrow morning at ten-thirty," she said. "Now watch yourselves crossing the highway. Look both ways."
She nodded to Waterman and disappeared around the side of the building. She had been librarian since half the town could read, he thought. She was a pert little thing when he became police chief. The young fellows did a lot of reading those days and now their kids were attending her summer reading sessions. Agnes was already at the door of Cooley's drugstore. That was where Gilbert hung out too. The chief could hear the juke box all the way from where he was sitting. For a few moments he watched Cooley's fill up with the youngsters who worked around the town, clerks in the two super markets, the Emporium, stenographers in the real estate office and the bank, Fabry's lumber yard, the Whiting Press. Without his realizing it, his eyes moved directly from the door of Cooley's to the town square in front of him and rested a moment on the servicemen's plaque still standing at the edge of the square opposite the memorial to the Hillside dead in World War I. He gathered his long legs under him and got up. It suddenly occurred to him that his skepticism of Mabel's calls had distracted him from the possibility that the old man might be ill and helpless. He went in to the phone and gave the operator the number of the Whiting Press.
Alex Whiting was in the plant when Maude called him to the phone. "Fred Waterman wants to talk to you," she said. "I wish I could find you that way when I want you."
"See if you can open up that Durkin ad, will you, Maudie?" Alex said. "It looks like a death notice."
"The only way you can open it up is to throw out half his copy ... 'Specialties for intimate occasions' ... What's intimate about sardines and Camembert cheese? ..."
Alex winked at Joan Elliot as he passed her desk on the way to the phone. If Maude found anything to be cheerful about these days, she kept it to herself. She had been with the Whiting Press since it was started in 1910 by Charles Whiting. When Alex returned from service, he had taken over the business from his father, but Maude refused a pension. Alex was just as glad. She knew more about printing than he would learn in twenty years, and he was more interested in the Weekly Sentinel editorially, than in the printing business.
"I don't know if it's another of Mabel's wild goose calls, Alex," Waterman said over the phone, "but she says she hasn't seen old Mattson around his place all day. I'm going over there now and I thought you might give me a hand in case anything's happened to him."
"I'll be right over," Alex said. "I'll call you in a little while," he said to Joan. "Waterman thinks something may have happened to old Mattson."
"If you're going to the station, Alex," Maude called, "stop up and see Stella Woods. You got yourself into that ... I told you not to run that letter ..."
Waterman was standing at the curb when Alex drove up. He drove his own car getting an annual allowance from the town for it. Alex drove to Mattson's behind him. A couple of minutes after they had parked in front of the house, a dozen people gathered on the sidewalk outside the old iron fence.
The chief knocked at the front door. He didn't look across the yard, but out of the corner of his eye he could see Mabel maneuvering behind the curtains for a better view. "I was sitting at the station thinking about Andy," he said to Alex. "It's funny how we get to take people for granted. He ain't had any visible source of income the thirty years he's lived here, and Dan Casey was saying at the last Legion meeting the old fellow hasn't got mail ten times since he's been on the route."
"He used to scare the devil out of us when we were kids," Alex said, "the way he'd look at us with those eyes of his. You know the way kids exaggerate things."
"Hey Alex," someone called from the gate, "something happened to the old man?"
Alex was waiting on the steps. He waved but did not say anything.
"Doggone Mabel Turnsby," Waterman said. "She's been setting on that phone since she called me. We'll have the whole town down on us." He tried the two windows on the porch. They were locked and the blinds were drawn over the dusty panes of glass. The old man's rocker moved a little in the hot wind. Its cane bottom was hollowed with its many years of service.
"We better go round back," the chief said.
Alex followed him. Mabel tapped on her window for their attention and then pointed. Following her directions they looked up. The cat was walking the length of the window seat inside, back and forth, as though it were in a cage. Waterman approached the window there and tried to open it. The cat lunged at him against the glass and he jumped back.
"Something queer all right," he said. "That cat's like a cornered badger."
Mabel came down her back steps, wiping her hands in her apron. Alex tipped his hat.
"There's something wrong. Didn't I tell you?"
"Yes, Mabel," the chief said. "I think the old boy's gone."
"Gone? Dead, don't you mean?"
"Dead, gone, departed. However you want to put it."
She followed them to the back door. The cat had measured their steps and waited for them at the kitchen window, its back arched. The chief hesitated.
"Aren't you going to try the door?" Mabel asked.
Waterman took out his gun and examined the chamber. The last time he had used it was for target practice out on the baseball field at the edge of town. But he had kept it oiled.
"What's that for?" said Mabel.
"You're asking too doggoned many questions, Mabel Turnsby. I'd be more than grateful to you if you'd go back in the house."
"I'll be real quiet, Fred."
She'd be as quiet as a magpie, he thought. In all the years Andy had lived there she had probably got no closer to him than the tops of the kitchen curtains. Now she wasn't going to miss a trick. He put his hand against the window. The cat flew at it, screaming and tearing at the glass.
"See," he said, "that cat's vicious."
Mabel had already retreated several steps. "Mercy," she said. "I'll just watch from my porch till I hear the gun."
"Trouble with this town is you can't see if a man's sleeping or dead without everybody hanging over you," the chief said. "I ain't going to trust that cat, Alex. I just ain't taking any chances."
The door was locked. Waterman took an old mop handle and smashed the glass of a window. The cat leaped for the hole, tearing its stomach on the jagged glass and shrieking with pain. Waterman fired, blessedly silencing the cry. The distraught animal drew itself together like a caterpillar and fell to the porch.
"I never saw or heard anything like that," Alex said.
Waterman knocked out the rest of the glass and climbed through. Alex went in after him. There was a peculiar odor in the house, as though no air had been in it for many hours. There were dishes on the table, washed, but already filmed with dust. A huge box of old newspapers stood between the wall and the stove. Alex stopped to look at them. Then the ancient refrigerator started up, a familiar noise to be so startling. Alex and Waterman looked at one another.
"Come on, boy."
The bathroom was at one side of the hallway out of the kitchen. Opposite it was the bedroom. The bed had not been made, but neither did it look slept in. Waterman stood over it a few seconds. "Kind of looks like he got in and out again without staying very long, don't it?" he said. He pulled up the blind. There were no more buildings on that side of the street until Fitzsimmons' gas station at the corner. The goldenrod was thick in the field, something the health department should have attended. The window was locked and the dust had gathered on the lock as though it had not been opened for many days. The old man's pajamas lay across the one chair in the room.
Alex followed Waterman into the dining room. Here the shades were up, and Alex thought, the glare of midday light was more eerie than the gloom of the bedroom. The furniture was inexpensive and unused, but the upholstery had faded until the design was indistinguishable. A sliding door beyond was closed.
"It's been swept lately," Alex said.
Waterman stood at the bay window, and Alex could see a drop of perspiration running down his temple. "This is where Mabel saw the cat all morning," the chief said. He went to the door then and pulled it open, the rollers squeaking as though it had not been used for a long time. The living room was almost dark, seeming darker after the brightness from which they had come. The blinds were drawn, but even in the dimness, they could see the figure of the old man huddled up on the sofa. His cane lay on the floor beside him.
"He's a goner, all right," Waterman said. "Better not raise the shades in here till we see what happened."
Alex found the wall switch.
"Holy Joseph," Waterman said.
The old man was twisted up like a baby, his arm over his face as though he were protecting it. His white shirt sleeve was stained with blood. The chief pulled the stiffened arm away from the face. Andy's eyes were open. They were black and fierce, but there had been terror in them when he was dying, and it had remained after the life had gone out of him.
"Those scratches," Alex said, "the poor old guy."
"I think we better get Doc Jacobs," Waterman said.
"It must have been the cat," said Alex. "But he's had it for years."
"It looks like it all right. But that door was closed, and he don't look like he got up and closed it, and then came back here to lie down in this position."
"I don't get it," Alex said.
"I don't either," said Waterman. "That's why I want Doc Jacobs up to take a look at him."
Mabel appeared in the doorway. "What's happened, Fred?"
Waterman was across the room as though he had flown it. He whirled her out. "You get out of here, Mabel Turnsby," he said, "and stay out till you're invited."CHAPTER 2
ALEX WENT TO CALL the doctor, taking Mabel out of the house with him. She went reluctantly, hesitating here and there to get a look at something as they passed. It was hard to like her, Alex thought, a person with curiosity at a time like this. But then she had not seen Mattson's face. He unlocked the door and held it for her to precede him.
"Tell Gilbert to post Central where we are and come up here," the chief called.
"My, but he's nasty this afternoon," Mabel said.
"Upset," said Alex. "It wasn't easy for him to kill that cat."
"Terrible," she said. "Poor Andy's dead, isn't he?"
"I told Fred Waterman. I told him this morning. But he had to take his own good time getting here."
"May I use your phone, ma'm?"
She led him up the back steps and through the kitchen. What a difference between her place and Andy's, Alex thought. To a man living alone a house is nothing. To a woman, everything. The floor linoleum was waxed and highly polished. In front of a wicker rocker was a hooked rug. Mabel was famous for her rugs and quilts. In the center of the porcelain-topped table was a bowl of sweet William and marigolds.
In the living room Mabel fluffed up the cushions while Alex phoned. She did not intend to miss the calls. Her face didn't betray her curiosity, but it didn't betray anything, except, perhaps, a brashness, Alex thought. It was neatly powdered and rouged, and as nondescript as her grey-white hair which she wore gathered up straight into the knob on the top of her head.
Excerpted from The Judas Cat by Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Copyright © 1949 Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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