Read The Black Cats Online

Authors: Monica Shaughnessy

The Black Cats (5 page)

 

Rittenhouse
Redux

 

WHAT NERVE MIDNIGHT HAD,
masquerading as a house-born cat when he’d sprung from the gutter like me. Our relationship
commenced last fall when I was but a fledgling crime solver. I’d tracked my
quarry, the Glass Eye Killer, as far as Rittenhouse Square before running out
of clues and ideas. That’s when I happened upon Midnight—a chance meeting
that led to, I am loath to admit, an infatuation. He dazzled me with kittenhood
tales of velvet pillows, everlasting tuna, and silken collars, and in my
naiveté, I believed every word. Having spent my formative years as a stray,
living in a wooden crate behind Osgood’s Odd Goods, I was in no position to
judge the veracity of his stories. Looking back, his proclivity for theft
had
hinted at a less than fortuitous
upbringing. I’d just been too enamored to notice.

As the
omnibus turned the corner of North 9
th
onto Spring Garden, I thought
of the ancient proverb: scratch me once, shame on you; scratch me twice, shame
on me. I would not be scarred by Midnight again. The long four-horse carriage stopped
at the curb near my paws.

“Afternoon,
Miss Puss,” Mr. Coal said from the driver’s perch. His top hat swallowed his
small head, and the size difference caused the hat to wobble when he spoke.
“You’re looking well today. Catch any good mice lately?” I did not know Mr. Coal’s
true name. Rather, I’d assigned it based on his route. He worked the black line,
Mr. Goldenrod worked the yellowish line, Mr. Sky worked the blue line and so
forth. Endearing myself to the city’s omnibus drivers had been easy; a
plaintive mew, a blink of my eyes, and they were mine, present company
included. “Mind your step,” he said, working the door lever.

I boarded
the horse-bus and walked between a preponderance of legs, looking for a seat. After
realizing the joys of transportation last autumn, I became a public transit
devotee. Yes, yes, the cobblestones rattled a body, tail to teeth. But, oh, the
convenience! The journey to Rittenhouse by paw would have taken until sundown,
and I had neither the patience nor the stamina to see it through. I found a
seat next to a bespectacled woman with a pheasant plume on her bonnet. The slender
brown feathers fluttered in the open window behind her as the carriage lurched
forward. Despite the gaiety of her hat, however, the woman’s face had all the
charm of a pitted prune.

She
leaned out of the window and shouted to Mr. Coal, “Driver, why does the cat
ride free? I demand to know, where’s
her
dime?”

“I asked
her for fare once, missus.” Mr. Coal’s voice floated in through the window. “She
tried to carve me like a Sunday ham. But you go right ahead and get the money from
her. I’d be much obliged.”

“Dear
me,” the woman muttered. She rose and took a new seat, squeezing between two gentlemen
in the rear of the coach. This suited me, and I settled into the rhythm of the
horses’ steps. By and by, their cadence calmed me, lessening my need for blood.
I would engage Midnight in a battle of wits, not claws, I decided. It took two
transfers to reach my destination, but I made it to Rittenhouse near teatime.

I
yowled to be let off and disembarked, taking in the familiar smell of the place.
The odor of limestone and new construction prompted memories, both good and
bad. I could not say I missed this neighborhood, not as I did Fairmount. I set out
for Midnight’s imposing townhome, reaching it several blocks later. Climbing
the steps the wide stone porch, I began a campaign of vocalizations until a
small child answered my call. Her blonde curls sprang from her head like a
bird’s nest. If memory served, this was Sarah, the miniature mistress of the
house. In her arms, she carried a baby swaddled in a tapestry shawl with black
fringe all around.

The
girl knelt and patted me on the head, giving me a peek inside the bundle she
carried. My first assessment had been incorrect. She held not a baby but a large
grey kitten with a shiny ribbon tied round her neck. The tabby’s permanent
teeth poked jaggedly through her gums, as if they hadn’t had an opportunity to
grow in yet.

“You’re cute,” Sarah said to me. “Do you
have a home? Would you like to come in? We’re playing house, and Lovie needs a sissy.”
She bounced the kitten-baby in her arms.

Sissy
? Could she have met
Mrs. Poe? I doubted it. “I am looking for Midnight,” I said to the kitten.
“Does he still live here?”

“For the
time being.”

“Then
will you get him for me?”

“He is
napping,” the kitten said with a touch of boredom.

“He is
a cat,” I said. “He is
always
napping, you supercilious scrap of fur. Now retrieve him at once, or I will reach
into that blanket and—”

“Cattarina?”
Midnight padded onto the porch. Sunlight glistened on his long black fur, lending
him a regal air I found irresistible, even today. He still wore the blue ribbon
round his neck, the one I remembered from our last visit, but it had frayed at
the edges.

“Oh,”
Sarah said, “she’s come for
you,
handsome
boy.” She leapt to her feet and sang, “Midnight’s got a sweetheart. Midnight’s
got a sweetheart.” She skipped into the house with her kitten-baby. As the door
swung shut, the grey fur ball gave me a direct stare, ears tipped sideways.
What insolence.

“A matched
pair,” I said to Midnight. “Good riddance.”

“Sarah
used to dote on me, until Lovie showed up,” he said to me. “But enough about
them. Let’s talk about you and where you’ve been the last six moons.” He sat on
his hindquarters and puffed his chest fur, displaying the white patch over his
breastbone—the most glaring difference between him and the murdered cat. “I
tried to visit you last winter, but your pal at Eastern State
Penitentiary—”

“Big
Blue?”

“Yes,
that’s him. He couldn’t say where you’d gone.”

I
turned my nose to the sky. “You kept busy with other mollies, I am certain.”

“None
like you, Cattarina.”

I
paused to consider my strategy, settling on Circle and Pounce. “Perhaps my
charm comes from a feral upbringing.”

“Maybe.”

“You
and I are different, aren’t we, Midnight? You have never known the hardships of
street life. I, on the other hand, know them too well.” I circled him, treading
with slow, soft steps.

“Well…yes.
But don’t feel bad. Not everyone is fed from a silver spoon at birth.”

“And
what, pray tell, came on your silver spoon?”

“Oh,
you know…the usual.”

“Minced
lamb? Creamed tuna? Bacon drippings?” I circled tighter.

“Of
course.”

“Ha!” I
spat. “Lie upon lie upon lie!”

“What
are you talking about?”

I faced
him, hackles raised. “Why didn’t you tell me you were born a stray, Midnight?
Or should I call you Crow?”

His
pale eyes shone bright, twin moons against his dark fur. “H-how did you find
out?”

“Silas
and Samuel, my new neighbors.” I walked to the edge of the stoop and wrapped my
tail around me. “I am sure you are acquainted with their caretaker, Mr.
Eakins.”

“Yes, I
know Mr. Eakins. If not for him, I would probably be dead by now.”

Like
the cat in the tree. I dismissed the thought. “Then why did you hide the truth,
particularly when we share the same heritage? To humiliate me?”

“What?
No! To impress you.” He joined me on the top stair. “There
have
been other mollies, Cattarina, but none with your…fire.”

“I
do
have fire, don’t I?” I unwrapped my tail and cast it lazily upon the steps.

“Yes,”
he said. “Enough to burn down the whole of Philadelphia.”

“And my
ears. Do you like them? I think they are my best feature.”

“They
are, without a doubt, your best feature.”

We brushed
cheeks. All was forgiven.

“So you
came all the way to Rittenhouse to catch me in a lie?” Midnight said. “I’m flattered.”

“No, of
course not,” I countered. Many untruths had been told this afternoon; I did not
mind adding to their number. “My purpose lies with another stray, hanged this
very morning near Green Street. To find the tom’s executioner, I must learn his
identity. So I am speaking to as many of our kind as possible in the hope that
someone knows something. He looked a little like you but all black. On the small,
scrawny side with a single orange eye. I shan’t tell you about the other eye.”

Midnight
swallowed. “When you say orange, do you mean pumpkin or copper?”

“I
don’t see what difference—”

“Please!”

“Very
well, copper-
ish
.”

“If it’s
who I think it is, the cat’s name is Snip. I hadn’t thought about him in…” He
stared at a passing wagon filled with anthracite. “Well, it’s been ages. We met
during our stay with Mr. Eakins. The old man placed me in a home first, and I
never thought about him or that old life until today.” He sighed. “Funny little
tom. Always worked for the laugh. He ran loops around the Coon Cats. Loved to spill
their water dish and watch them play in the mess. He was
quite
the entertainer.” Midnight faced me, his eyes narrowed. “I
hope you find who killed him, Cattarina.”

“As do
I.” I arose and paced the stoop. “The black cat— I mean, Snip’s death has
proved most discomforting to Sissy, the mistress of Poe House. And my Eddy can
scarcely think of anything else. I am hunting for them, you see, as well as Snip.”

“Now
who’s the liar, Cattarina?” Midnight said. “I see the excitement in your tail.”

I
looked back at the aforementioned item and found it sticking straight in the
air. I lowered it, dusting the limestone. “Very well. It
is
exhilarating to hunt for big game. But my family is no less the
reason. Nor is retribution for a fallen brother.”

“Maybe
I can help,” he said. “When you called on your neighbors, Silas and Samuel, did
you happen to see a large leather-bound book in their home?”

“The
cookery book?”

Midnight
cocked his head.

“Never
mind. I know of it.”

“Midnight!”
Sarah screeched from the front hall. “Let’s play hopscotch!” The sound of her
voice flattened Midnight’s ears. It had a similar effect on me, driving me back
to the steps.

“Mr.
Eakins scribbles things inside it,” he said quickly.

“That’s
what humans do,” I said. “It’s how they communicate. Though I cannot read the
marks, they are of great importance to Eddy.”

“It’s
possible Mr. Eakins wrote about Snip’s new owners in the book.” The door opened,
banging against the inside wall. Sarah snatched Midnight under the ribcage, his
back legs dangling. “Find Snip’s entry, and find your answers,” he wheezed. “Charmed
to see you, Cattarina. Do come ag—”

The
door slammed, cutting our conversation short. Fiddlesticks. I longed to heed
his advice, except the memory of this morning’s capture troubled me. Then I had
to overcome the small problem of my illiteracy, at least in the ways of human
writing. Even if I located the book, its contents would be indecipherable. I
arched my back, releasing the crick in my spine, and left for the omnibus stop.

The carriage
trip home gave me an opportunity to reflect on Midnight’s advice, enough so
that when I reached Spring Garden, I’d talked myself into visiting Mr. Eakins. Heading
north, I reached the Butcher’s dwelling and climbed to his kitchen windowsill. I
peered through the glass. The old man sat at the dining table, charcoal twig in
hand, doodling in his leather-bound
cat-
pendium.
Dash it all. Before I could snoop for clues, Mr. Eakins would have to set his
drawing aside, a difficult task given the allure of the feline form. I watched him
a while longer, fascinated by the movement of his hand on the paper. Eddy
usually frowned as he worked; I think it helped him. But Mr. Eakins smiled—a
fool’s grin, toothy and without reason—as he sketched. The task consumed
him such that the folly of his Coon Cats passed unnoticed.

Behind
him, Silas and Samuel crept to the sideboard where they plundered a near-empty soup
pot. The brothers took turns, each allowing the other a few licks of broth. It
was a polite affair until Silas—in a fit of gluttony—butted Samuel
out of the way, jumped into the vessel, and upended himself by accident. His
back legs punched the air as he tried to extract himself from the stew he’d
gotten himself into.
Stew.
I twitched
my whiskers, pleased with the pun. Samuel elected to escape trouble and dashed
into the parlor out of view.

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