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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Story For Haiti: Catnip Pete and the Suricata Symbol (part one)

The important stuff first.

I am posting this story for Crossed Genre's "Post A Story For Haiti" project. If you enjoy the story, great; if not, please consider donating by clicking the following links anyway. While I hope you enjoy the story, I'm more interesting in trying to help raise money for the people in Haiti. So, if you hate it, but still donated, then feel free to let me know.

You can donate to any of the following places (the links below go directly to the donation pages):
--The International Red Cross
--Doctors Without Borders
--The Rainbow World Fund

I've decided that the story is far too long to put in one piece (it's over 3,500 words at this point), so I am going to split it into two pieces. Part two will be posted tomorrow.

The story is below (you might have to click the read more to see it):

Catnip Pete and the Suricata Symbol (Part One)
by Shaun Duke
The universe is made of catnip. That’s what my Aunt Felinia used to tell me. Then again, she was crazier than an automated rat catcher—not that cats are bad at catching rats, just that we’re not all that interested in it for the usual logistical reasons—it’s a pleasure thing. But fantasies have a way of converging with reality, and I never thought I’d see a real dead body for my first serious case.

His name was Terrance Alimar Coetzee Smith, an Albanian fellow who apparently used to sell ice cream to the little tikes on Captain Street at dirt-cheap prices. Undercutting the big guy? You bet, and the Ice Cream Truck Alliance, with their steambots stationed outside I.C.T.A headquarters, breathing molten fire and vaporized air, would definitely have something to say about that.

But the condition of Smith’s body told me that the I.C.T.A. had nothing to do with it: teeth marks up and down his face, arms, legs, and torso. Someone had bitten him to death. The humans had already figured that part out—no homicide case had been filed—but I worked for another company—the Feline Monitoring Agency (FeMA for short)—and they usually wanted a hand in the affairs of humans, especially when man’s best friend was involved.

“Pete?” One of the officers approached, his buzzer flashing in the sun. He glanced at the crime scene, at the blood, torn flesh, and the terrified, wide-eyed stare of horror. The officer’s name was Wilson, a dark-haired fellow who had the look of an ex-gumshoe in his eyes. “FeMA call you in?”

I nodded. “I’ve got a case.”

“I see that. Pretty much open-and-shut, though. Dog turned on him.”

“Which one?” I scratched my ear.

“Skipper, apparently. He’s the only one missing.”

“I see.”

Rumor had it that Skipper was a bit of a booze hound, no pun intended. But that’s a far cry from murderous cog. Dogs can put up with a lot, unlike us felines, but they lack the independent nature necessary to take up regular employment. There are only two canine detectives in Corey Morgan City: Sigmund and Freud. Fitting names, too; psychoanalytic … the both of them. “Something must have triggered him.”

Wilson shrugged. “We’ll leave that side of the story to you.”


“Be careful. He doesn’t have his shots.”

“Yeah.” Nothing like a little rabies to keep you on your toes. “Thanks. I’ll be in touch.”
Wilson walked away and I fingered the matchbox in my jacket pocket. I didn’t smoke, but I liked the feel of them there—like kitty thinker caps playing on the edges of my claws.

Smith looked all kinds of terrible, like the leftovers from a meat grinder, or the strange canned cat food concoctions humans came up with to seize up the arteries of unsuspecting purebreds. Tabby’s, it seems, have it easier in the world: plenty of pampering and no heart attacks from ultra-rich regurgitated fish and chicken. But, after seeing the garbled remains of Smith’s body, I couldn’t imagine eating anything from a can again, even for special occasions. Something about the way his blood oozed out from the torn flesh and bubbled in the sunlight set my stomach churning. Thank the heavens that the misses is a fine cook, otherwise I might have sworn myself to a dried food diet.

But, in all actuality, bodies provide very little useful information when it comes to solving a case. I could smell Skipper, a sort of pungent urine-like scent that blended with the dozens of other dogs who had evacuated themselves in the field. The problem with dogs is they’re all so eager to mark everything, and when everything smells like everyone it’s like trying to find the really special kind of catnip—the kind that sends your fur into a frenzy—in a house of catnip.
But I’d find Skipper. Eventually. You can only stay hidden for so long. Besides, labs aren’t exactly the most intelligent critters on these streets.

I pulled out a notepad from my coat pocket and the misses’ favorite pen and started jotting down everything I’d need—and there wasn’t much at that. A broken leash and collar with Skipper’s name on a little bone-shaped ID tag, the body all mangled, pulverized, bloody dog prints scattered all over the place—chaotic—and the lingering sense that even if Skipper had done this, that there was something more to that story too. Maybe, I started to think to myself, the I.C.T.A. did have something to do with it. But how?

I shook my head and took a few more notes about the shape of the body—the arms pointing to twelve and two, legs at three and nine—before adjusting my bowler cap and heading home. I had told the misses I’d only be out an hour, and she’s not one to be kept waiting, especially when there’s pie to be eaten. Apples and cinnamon. Sweet paradise.


The misses had a few words to say before she let me return to the job. She remembered all too well what had happened to me the last time I had taken on a fugitive pooch—three months in a body cast, four hundred and twenty three stitches, five minor surgeries, and a huge cut in my pension. It took some doing, but I managed to calm her down enough to get out the door without ruffling her feathers (or fur, for that matter)—a good way to sooth the misses’ nerves is to appeal to her ego, which is exactly what I did (and if not for the misses and her random ideas and sharp wit, I don’t think I would be nearly as successful or as well known in Corey Morgan City). She’d said over dinner, in passing, something about Agatha Christie, and the simple mention of that name raised the sun over the horizon of knowledge. So, I left her behind with a big plate of apple pie in front of her and a look—her slit eyes open, brow curled slightly in worry, and her lips quivering with anticipation, like a serpent’s tail the second before the strike. Something about that look sent my senses flying, and for a good ten minutes my tail developed a mind of its own and swished about, a furry whip in the evening air. But I had a plan, and I was sticking to it.

I think Agatha Christie had some sort of magical attunement to dogs. I’d told myself after dinner that if I was going to find Skipper without following his scent, then I’d have find out wherever he had gone to lick his wounds. Christie seemed to have it right: injured dogs crawl away and disappear until they’re whole again. And where better to crawl away than a warehouse? There were at least five of them within reasonable distance of Smith’s body and home. It was in the fifth that I found Skipper. Maybe Christie was right about the wound-licking, but she was certainly wrong about them being wise. Seems to me if you don’t want to be found, you don’t go to an abandoned warehouse. It’s too noir, too obvious, too…cliché.

But, I had to paw it to Skipper; if there was any intelligence in that mutt brain of his, maybe he had it in his thoughts that a shadow-ridden place of horror would ward people off. It almost worked. Approaching the warehouse from the north meant I could see into the broken windows, into the darkness within. Yeah, we cats can see pretty well in the dark, but that doesn’t mean it’s an enjoyable experience. It’s like seeing the world through a colored lens, grainy and disconcerting, and yet somewhat comforting to know that at least you won’t bump into anything or get ambushed by some rabid pooch. But, if you’ve ever seen a dog attack through cat night vision, then you’ll understand the apprehension. It’s one thing to play a warbled tune on a piano in the middle of the night; it’s entirely another to track down a violent animal and lay down the law in a place littered with broken glass, falling support beams, trash, old wash basins, and rusted construction bunglers with all their gears seized up for good.

And that’s why I always kept the Pacifier with me. The blasted thing was illegal—most heaters were—and probably for good reasons, but it wasn’t like the cops were willing to do anything about it. A man, or cat, had to defend himself, and when you’re small and furry, and the enemy is ten times your size, well, a little extra help goes a long way. I ran a paw over the bulge in my coat, reassuring myself that it was still there. Hopefully I wouldn’t have to use it.

Tiptoeing through a hole in the front wall, I listened carefully for any sigh of life, looking back and forth, expecting that at any moment Skipper would appear from the darkness and rub me out. But he wasn’t at the front, or anywhere on the first floor. Only the sound of dripping water and the quarrel of irritated pigeons kept me company on my way up the enormous staircase in the back. All the stairs creaked and groaned and the structure itself looked like it would collapse at any minute. It’s a good thing to be a cat, all light on our toes and what not.

And that’s when I heard it. Not arguing or quiet conversation, but rushed, irritated whispers on two separate frequencies, a merging of two oppositional tunes, like a collapsing stream of musical notes until, suddenly, out of the dissonance, an unusual harmony appears. A phoenix from the ashes. A swan from an ugly duckling. A mouse sprung to life after playing dead.

It was probably a miracle that they were too engaged in conversation to notice me climbing the dying stairs, or hear the sound of the Pacifier whirling to life after I had plucked it from my coat pocket, or even notice the shape of a cat in a suit and bowler cap worming his way through the boxes and crates and other broken things. It was probably a miracle that they didn’t start running when I said, “The gig’s up, Skipper.” Hell, there were probably a few dozen miracles at work in those brief minutes before Skipper’s surprised chocolate face looked at me as if I were his mother and destroyer all at once. When the realization dawned on him and his companion—a slender, shifty-looking meerkat who seemed all too out of place in the landscape of Corey Morgan City—it was too late. The miracle had been done and the cuffs were already dangling from my free paw, the bulky, bronze-colored shape of the Pacifier, little gears whirling and the electric spark inside hissing, a serpent waiting to be released by its master, held firm in the other.

And if my Aunt Felinia had seen them willingly give themselves over to be processed by FeMA, without so much as a confession or a denial, or any of the two dozen other things they could of done instead of let me take them without a fight, she might have thought it strange, but still a miracle. She was always such a realist.


“Has he said anything yet?” Director Calvin said, staring me down with his flat nose and wide-set eyes—a shade or two lighter than the coffee in the mug in his paw. His tongue played with his lower lip as if anticipating food. It’s a Persian thing.

The observation room was empty but for the two of us, and uncomfortably quiet. Through the one-way mirrors of the two holding pens we could see that nobody was saying much of anything, and the ceiling fans were dead—the steam engine powering the northern quarter had been running on half-power for months. “Nothing, or so your boys tell me.”

“What about his companion, Mr,” he looked down at the documents on the desk, “Salvador Verne?”

“Nothing compelling, I’m afraid. He had some interesting things to say about the legal system, but you can’t really hold him for that.”

“Unless we charge him as an accessory to the murder.”

“There’s not much evidence for that, I’m afraid. I didn’t hear much of their conversation in the warehouse, and for all you know he could have been arguing with Skipper for other reasons.” I shrugged. “You’ve got nothing on him except a reason to hold him for twenty-four hours.”

“And he didn’t say anything to you when you called my boys to come pick them up?”

“No. They went all tight-lipped the second they saw me.”

“Odd that they gave up so easily, don’t you think?”

“Actually, now that you mention it, yes. Skipper doesn’t fit the profile.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, he’s a lab, for one, and they tend to be on the more loyal end. But more importantly, if he really went ape on Mr. Smith, you’d think he would have no qualms ripping this old tabby in two. But, look at him…” Now, the two of us really looked through the glass. Skipper sat transfixed on the bowl of water on the table. His eyes were solemn, and guilty, but the way they quivered told me something else: he was battling something inside, something he didn’t want to tell the rest of us. I hate secrets. “It’s almost as if he doesn’t have a violent bone in his body.”

“No, just a few genes buried somewhere in there.”

“Genes don’t snap to life and turn off like a light switch.”

“Well, we’ve got Skipper on irrefutable charges. This Salvador Verne…well, we’ll see what happens to him. There’s nothing else for you to do here.” Director Calvin turned and lugged his corpulent frame towards to door, no doubt heading for his office. He probably had a few cans of Félin Pompeux sitting on his desk, tempting him like the tree of knowledge. He most certainly gave into temptation whenever it came calling.

“Mind if I ask them a few questions? Might turn up some leads.”

He turned enough to land a dark eye on me from the door. “Feline intuition?”

“Something like that.”

He blinked, rolled his eye and body back towards the door, and waved a hand. “Whatever. Do what you like.”

“Thanks,” I said, but he was already gone.


Aunt Felinia had a way with words. She used to say that if you want to get someone to talk, threaten to break a limb; but if you want someone to tell you the truth, and nothing but, then threaten to eat them alive. Maybe that was sound knowledge back in the day when the mice swarms were eating every town from Corey Morgan City to Festington out of house and home. Detective work was a little different back then; Aunt Felinia had desperation on her side.

These days, if you want someone to talk, usually all you need is pathos. Hit a few heartstrings and the truth comes pouring out like a raging river of facts, fears, and explanations. I was betting on that to work with Skipper, but something told me that Salvador would be a tougher nut to crack—he’d have to go first.

A deputy let me into the room and locked the huge door behind me. Levers slid into place with a series of clicks, and then something else made a clang; nobody was getting out of this room. Salvador sat there with his pointed black nose angled towards the ceiling and his beady eyes closed. Long stripes of fuzzy brown fur lined his back, reminding me how far out of his element he was—no zoos for this fellow; the real deal.

“You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.” His eyes opened and he tilted his head in my direction. He had a thick accent—I suspected Kenyan—but his English seemed unrestrained, fluent.

“Is that so, Mr. Verne? Please, enlighten me.” I pulled the other seat out from under the table, letting the legs grind on the stone floor, and then sat down, playing the good cop/bad cop role all on my own. I shuffled some papers around and feigned disinterest.

“I see no reason to put my life at risk.”

“We can offer you…”

“Protection?” His laugh came as a surprising boom, followed by an equally surprising echo; he could project remarkably well for a rodent. Surprises like that at the start of an interrogation never bodes well. “I’m sure you’ve heard it before, Catnip Pete, but you can’t protect me. They have people everywhere.”


“You’re not getting anything else out of me.”

“Just hyperbole.”

His lip curled into a sardonic smile. “I was trying to help Skipper. He’s not a bad dog, but he makes a good patsy.”

“A patsy for what?”

“You’re not very good at this.”

“Skipper murdered a human being. So far, that’s all the humans need to rub him out for good.”

“You and I both know there’s nothing right about the whole situation.” He crossed his furry arms and gritted his teeth. “The poor bastard didn’t see it coming, I suspect.”

“So, you were in the warehouse helping Skipper? Helping him to do what?”

“Get him out of the country, of course. You cats have it in your heads that dogs are predisposed to violence, and that every so often a dog just snaps.”

“That’s one school of thought.”

“Yeah?” Salvador slammed his paws on the desk. “A school of thought that everyone seems to buy. Nobody ever looks a little deeper, at least not when it comes to us animals. They pass it off as just another attack, another example of why we’re still so wild. Nobody asks the perpetrators what happened. Nobody does a few tests or talks to folks like Skipper with anything less than an assumption of guilt. Open and shut, as your kind says.”

He had me interested, if not a little convinced. That first day, after seeing the body, the evidence, and getting an idea of who Skipper was. None of it seemed right. But, conspiracies and evil organizations that nobody knows about? It sounded too much like a bad action movie. “So, in your eyes, Skipper is innocent?”

“I know he’s innocent. And I’m not saying anything else. Maybe if you dicks and coppers did your job for once, we wouldn’t be here.”

We stared at one another for a few moments. It was a curious silence, both of us anticipating what neither of us could say. There were secrets on both sides: I didn’t want him to know that I might actually believe him; he didn’t want me to know who he tought was behind everything. Not yet.

Then the staring contest ended and I stood up to leave, ruffling the papers for effect. “Thanks for your time, Mr. Verne.”

“No problem.”

I pounded in the door, sighed as the bolts were undone and the door flew open. Taking a few moments to stare over Skipper’s file, I thought about how all this seemed to tie to my earlier assumptions. Could the I.C.T.A. really be behind this, all because Mr. Smith had been undercutting their business? Or was there another organization at work? And then, I wondered how. If Skipper really was a patsy, how did they get him to attack Mr. Smith? Mind control? I snickered at that. I’ve had a few weird ideas in my day, but nothing quite so…science fictional.

When a few minutes passed, I decided to let myself into Skipper’s interrogation room. They had him chained to his chair, but that didn’t seem to stop him from turning around to stare at me with his big dough eyes as I walked in and took a seat. I didn’t let him get too comfortable.

Interrogating Skipper produced two lines of thought: the first that he had done something terrible; the second that he could remember every detail, but had been unable to do anything about it, as if he had been trapped in his own furry body. Thus far, nobody had actually asked him anything that would allow him to explain his situation; that might have been one of the reasons Aunt Felinia had suggested I move on into the private business—cops have a way of intentionally avoiding finding the facts.

The Skipper experience made the strange conversation with Mr. Verne look emotionally stilted, like a conversation between robots. Skipper cried and whimpered throughout the entire discussion, and it took all my effort to keep him cogent enough to explain everything. It wasn’t that he feared his imminent death (let’s face it, being in the FeMA headquarters was one step on the way to death row); no, he feared for Mr. Smith’s immortal soul, and his own.

In the end, I had one lead: Skipper’s trapped-in-body experience. If Mr. Verne’s story was at all credible, maybe the docs would find something in Skipper’s blood, and if they did, well, that meant someone other than Skipper had a hand in Mr. Smith’s death.

Aunt Felinia was laughing in her grave.

End Part One

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