The important stuff first.
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Catnip Pete and the Suricata Symbol (Part Two)
by Shaun Duke
by Shaun Duke
The misses made fish gumbo for lunch the following day. We’d long since come to terms with the fact that I was a disaster in the kitchen, and she had refused me the right to use the good pans for anything. To be fair to the misses, she did cook for a living, which somehow made it acceptable for her to take on the kitchen duties and for me to assume the task of cleaning every inch of our little one bedroom Victorian. Before she left for work, thus leaving me to wallow in the emptiness of the world around me, she made a familiar request: “Get some rhubarb from the store.” There’d be a new pie by the end of the day.
The labs were double-booked, so it looked like I’d have to wait an extra few hours before Skipper’s results would come in. I hated waiting as much as I hated it when the misses misplaces my catnip mouse. Aunt Felinia had a saying: if you’re too impatient to wait a mouse out, pretend to be doing something else; a mouse can’t resist the opportunity to get you with your fur down. She said a lot of things, and not all of them useful.
When the results finally came in—delivered by a squirrel runner from FeMA, a little fellow named Stub who suffered from a rare balding disease on his tail (which, no doubt, made it difficult to climb trees)—I had spent already spent a good six hours staring at the table, the pictures, and my notes. It occurred to me that I needed a hobby, but couldn’t for the life of me think of anything I could do. Short of hunting down criminals, keeping up the old exercises, and making sure the misses was happy, I didn’t have much else.
And the results? Salvador was right. There was nothing normal about the every facet of the case. Skipper’s blood had traces of an unknown substance; the docs suspected an antipsychotic, but that was iffy at best—you’d think Skipper would remember having a pill shoved down his throat. So, it had to be something else, something illegal, something produced by someone with access to medical supplies.
Then it dawned on me. I tore into the pages on the table, ignoring the cup of cold coffee the misses had left for me, and the fish bagel, pushing everything out of the way until I found what I was looking for. There it was, staring up at me in all its dead-tree glory: Skipper’s medical records. Plastered in big black letters was the name Dr. Charles P. Murkowitz.
If anyone had access to the kinds of medical supplies needed to give Skipper a psychotic break, you could bet it would be a vet. And Skipper had had an appointment with Dr. Murkowitz the morning of Mr. Smith’s death. I had a lead and things were looking up. For the both of us.
Dr. Murkowitz had a shady record—a two-time loser with a pension for recreational hop. With the way the humans ran their vet clinics, though, it wasn’t a surprise that he had access to a lot of the things he had been busted for in ninety-two. None of that was damning, though. Not really. I’d learned over the years that a man who looked guilty when reflected against the past usually was the opposite. Everyone makes mistakes at some point—I once stole a fuzzy teddy bear from a two-year-old—but the way Aunt Felinia figured it, you’re only guilty if you don’t learn a lesson—I’ve since kept my paws off fuzzy teddy bears, and two-year-olds, for that matter.
Murkowitz kept his new office on the south side of Corey Morgan City, a good six miles from FeMA headquarters, and three from his old location from a year ago. His clinic had been doing quite well ever since the CMC Vet Union got busted for padding their accounts, but there were a few other clinics still in operation since Murkowitz wasn’t much of a herp fan—neither are cats, if you get right down to it.
I took a horsetrain down Madison and made my way to the Sunny Side Happy Pets Clinic, keeping the tan trench coat wrapped tight and the bowler had snug around my ears. A chill wind blew along the south side from the harbor, and the tantalizing scent of fresh fish wafted along, tickling whiskers as if the fishermen, the fish, and the Norlington Fisheries were playing a cruel joke. I knew then that leaving the fish bagel on the table before catching the 2:30 to the south side was a bad idea.
Entering through the doggy door left me with two impressions. The first: that it was most certainly racist to have a doggy door without an accompanying kitty door. The second: vet clinics smell (in this case, the lingering stench of bleach, dandruff, and old vomit left me with a bad taste in my mouth). I shoved both impressions back, hopped up onto the counter, and set my mind to the task at hand; an old snow globe depicting a decrepit Santa Claus bringing blobs of presents to blobs of children in a sled pulled by blobs of flying reindeer jiggled.
I flashed my badge to the blonde on the counter. “I need to ask Dr. Murkowitz a few questions.”
She yawned, opened her bright blue eyes, stretched, and gave a sensual purr. If I wasn’t a married cat, I might have taken the bait. “Sure. I’ll let him know you’re here.”
I looked out the window at the dreary weather—dark clouds and the scent of oncoming rain. She did her best to impress, holding her tail high and moving her hips with a swagger that would have tempted a younger me. Then she hopped off the counter, disappeared around the bend, and returned to tell me that Dr. Murkowitz would speak with me in his office. I thanked her, polite as ever, and headed for the edge of counter. She rubbed her tail against my leg and giggled; I did my best to ignore her. Someone was going to have to get her fixed before her lack of inhibitions led her into trouble.
Murkowitz was already talking before I put both feet into his office. “Are you here about the damned gonif from last week?” His face was old, wrinkled and accentuated by a curled mop of graying hair. He was stalky and his lips were perpetually stretched tight over his crooked teeth; he spoke with a muffled accent.
I could see the criminal in him, lingering in the back of his dull green eyes—a criminal that wanted out. But, I could also see the restrained man he had become. Addiction does wicked things to a man, and anyone who can go from hero to zero to businessman deserves a little respect. Hell, even alcoholics have that guilty self sitting in the back of their eyes, desperate for another drink.
Dr. Murkowitz gestured for me to take a seat. I jumped into the old swivel-chair in front of his desk; he dropped his rear in the leather monstrosity sitting on the other side.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about. You were robbed?”
“You bloody well believe it. Stole two grand worth of medicines. I had to order an emergency supply and send customers I couldn’t treat away. Cost me a fortune. I’ll be lucky to make a sizable profit this year.” He ruffled some pages on his desk.
“Did you file a report?”
“Of course I did. What do you take me for?”
I said nothing.
“So, if you’re not here about that, then what do you want?”
“I’m here about one of your patients. Skipper. You treated him yesterday, correct?”
“Yeah. Just a checkup. Nothing major. Needed his toes clipped, though. Mr. Smith has a tendency to ignore the finer points of a dog’s life. He’s scheduled to bring Skipper in tomorrow, actually. Where is it…” he stopped and rummaged through the files on his desk before turning his attention to the file cabinets on either side of the room.
“Actually,” I pulled out my notepad, looking at my notes from the other day, partly for effect, “Mr. Smith is dead.”
“What? How?” His jaw dropped, exposing his teeth for a brief moment before he caught himself and closed up shop. It was a professional sort of surprise, as if he was more shocked by the prospect of losing a customer than the death. It was an honest response.
“I’m afraid Skipper may be the one responsible.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No, Dr. Murkowitz, I’m afraid not.”
“Well, I’ve never heard of anything like that before. Pitbulls, yeah, that’s easy. Hell, even a Chihuahua snaps once in a blue moon. Chocolate lab? If you were anyone else I wouldn’t believe you.” He rubbed his chin while shaking his head. I couldn’t blame him. You spend as much time as Murkowitz has working with animals, you come to know a few universal truths: human owners always wait until it’s too late to take their pets to the vet, cats are notorious about keeping their illnesses hidden, and labs haven’t got a violent bone in their bodies. I could see the world turning upside-down for him.
“Out of curiosity, Dr. Murkowitz, what medicines were stolen from your clinic last week?”
“Hmm? Oh, right. Well, a few nonessential items. Minor painkillers. Doggy aspirin and the like. But whoever the bastard was stole my entire supply of antipsychotics and tranquilizers. No idea how the little fellow got it all out of the clinic.”
“Oh, well I have security cameras in the place. A little critter about your size, all dolled up in burglar gear. Couldn’t see anything except his size.”
Now things were getting interesting. “Can I ask you a professional question?”
“Would it be possible to induce a homicidal reaction in a genetically friendly animal using medicines you might find in your clinic?”
“What are you getting at?” He leaned forward. “You think I had something to do with it?” Then he threw up his hands. “Always suspect the ex-con. Never any different for you flatties, is it? Well, I didn’t have anything to do with it. And you’re not nailing me for something I didn’t do because I’m an easy target either. So buzz off.”
“Dr. Murkowitz. You misunderstand my interest in your professional opinion for an accusation. I just want to know if it’s possible.”
He sighed, a big, thick stream of air that told me he had an unusually large set of lungs. “Theoretically speaking? Yeah, you could. It’d be one hell of a job, though. Maybe a mix of triglofan and mesiniclo could do it, but only at the right doses. To be honest, if you’re suggesting that the fellow who stole my medicines may have been able to concoct a potent mixture that could cause a chocolate lab to snap like that, then your list of suspects is probably pretty small.”
“The kind of knowledge you’d need to pull it off you’d have to get from someone with veterinary training. Which includes me and about a half-dozen other practicing vets, and maybe ten or so retired folks.”
“What about medical doctors?”
He shrugged. “They’d know the medicines, but a dog’s metabolism is drastically different than a human’s. You’re looking for someone who knows how a chocolate lab operates, and you’re only going to get that from someone who works or has worked with dogs.”
“I see.” I jotted down a few notes, then licked my paw and smoothed the fur between my ears. “Would you mind providing a list of the stolen items?”
“Sure.” He did some more rummaging while I wrote a few salient points on the notepad. Eventually, he hunted down a notepad of his own, scrawled a list of names in pencil, ripped it out and handed it over. I grabbed the paper, but he didn’t let go. “If you find the meds, I get them back, you hear?”
I narrowed my eyes and frowned.
“I have to turn this mess into a profit somehow.”
I pursed my lips. Selfish bastard that he was, at least he was honest. But he had to know as well as I that there was no way he was going to get those meds back for months, not so long as Skipper or whoever was on trial. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and said, “As you wish, Dr. Murkowitz.”
He grinned and let go of the paper. “Now, I have patients to see. If you have any more questions, feel free to leave them with Athena up front.”
“Thank you for your time.” We both stood. I hopped down from the chair. He led me back into the hall and disappeared before I could say anything else.
I decided there wasn’t anything else for me to do there. But, I had another lead, and leads were always a good thing. Maybe if Aunt Felinia had had a few more leads back in the day she could have curbed the rodent rebellions of sixty-eight. But she had always said that you never saw the really bad things coming until it was too late, otherwise somebody would have done something about all those bad things and the past would have been a very different place. Mr. Smith really was the innocent victim in all of this; he never saw it coming.
The way back to the north side of Corey Morgan City seemed longer, extended purposefully by some baleful god. Thinking does that to you. It extends time, makes it into something distinct from the little inch-by-inch moments that make up life. The leads were getting dangerously close to being circular. Skipper led me to Salvador, who led me to Dr. Murkowitz, who led me to…Salvador? No, that didn’t make any sense. Salvador wouldn’t be so stupid as to lead me right back to him. That’d be like a murderer giving away the location of the body under the guise that it would implicate someone else. Salvador was smarter than that. I could see it.
But there sure as hell was something to this robbery. Maybe Salvador had led me there because he thought it might lead to the people he feared would kill him if he uttered a word. Clever? Yeah, but too movie-like.
Then it hit me. Not the answer, but a hunch, of sorts, and any time a cat gets a hunch, you listen. Cat hunches are good stuff, for most people; I had known a few cat detectives who solved cases almost exclusively on hunches (sometimes they were wrong, but nobody ever paid attention to that). In this case, my hunch told me to check out Dr. Murkowitz’s old office. The aging uber-capitalist was likely innocent, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a connection between him and the folks who might have screwed with Skipper. I needed answers, because sooner or later people were going to wonder why the lab hadn’t been strung up on murder charges yet—people have always been gloriously impatient.
I signaled the horsetrain to drop me off on the corner of Madison and Magdalena, a short jog from the old location for the Sunny Side Happy Pets Clinic. The old black stallion grumbled something about cats and their unquenchable desire for detours and huffed a few horse insults before pulling down a side street and back onto Madison. A few blocks later and the horsetrain deposited me on the corner of Magdalena. I marched inland to the old office.
The place still had the gold and red paint from when it had been Murkowitz’s dream. The windows were intact, the doors still on their hinges, and the lack of dust inside on the old counters and padded chairs told me that somebody was still visiting. And there was the problem. Murkowitz likely still used the place—maybe for private visits, since he still lived on the north side of Corey Morgan City—and there was nothing damning about that. Another hunch debunked.
I sighed and leaned against the door, peering up into the dark sky, expecting at any moment for the rain to come pouring down. Unlike the misses, I donn’t mind a little drizzle. It keeps the fur fresh. But this day smelled and looked like it was about to unleash a storm. Never a good omen.
Running a paw through my whiskers, I turned my attention to the other side of the street. I’d come to grips with the fact that my hunches weren’t all that great, that Salvador had led me to a dead end and left me to wriggle in the dark. And then I saw the dance studio. And the small, furry, devious-looking weasel scurrying about inside. And the symbol—a dancer with arms pointed to twelve and two, legs at three and nine.
And I thought about what Aunt Felinia had said before she congratulated me on graduating from the FeMA academy (only a handful of months before she passed away from a terrible wasting disease no vet could ever diagnose): always trust your instincts; we tabbies have a propensity for getting it right.
No truer words have ever been said, and I knew then that all this worry over how the pieces were going to fall together, and whether my hunches were any good, ended up meaning nothing whatsoever. Aunt Felinia, my sage and muse, had it straight, and somewhere out there she was smiling, saying, “I told you so.”