WHEN SHERIFF DAN RHODES OPENED THE SCREEN DOOR OF HIS back porch, the cat was there.
It was an inky black, and it stared up at Rhodes with greenish yellow eyes, like a fugitive from a Halloween cartoon. It was an ordinary cat, he supposed, the kind the local vet would label a DHC, for Domestic House Cat. After giving Rhodes the once-over, it walked past him into his kitchen, pausing just long enough to arch its back and rub against Rhodes's leg, leaving behind some black hairs on his khaki pants.
Rhodes sneezed and looked around at the cat as it sniffed around the kitchen. The cat ignored Rhodes.
Rhodes turned back and looked out into the yard at Speedo, the border collie who inhabited it. Speedo wagged his tail. He didn't seem to mind that he'd allowed a strange cat to walk right past him. Rhodes thought that if dogs could shrug and talk, Speedowould have shrugged and said, "Hey, don't blame me for letting him get by. Cats are sneaky!"
Rhodes closed the door and went into the kitchen, where the cat was sniffing around the legs of the table. It appeared to be perfectly at ease. Rhodes saw that it was wearing a collar, a red one, and that a silver aluminum tag was hanging from it. He was about to have a look at the tag when Yancey bounded into the room.
Yancey was a Pomeranian and spent most of his time in the house, where he did a lot of bounding. He looked to Rhodes like a giant, hyperactive dust bunny. With eyes and legs.
Yancey froze when he saw the cat. Rhodes began to count silently. He had never seen Yancey stand still for more than five seconds.
The cat either didn't notice Yancey or didn't care about him if it did. It walked around under the table and then strolled over to the refrigerator, where warm air was being forced out from beneath by the exhaust fan. The cat sniffed at the air.
Rhodes had reached the count of seven-Mississippi, a new record, before Yancey went ballistic. The little dog bounced up and down in place, yipping. When it came to bounding, bouncing, and yipping, Yancey was a champ.
The cat was unperturbed, and Rhodes wondered if it might be deaf. It walked away from the refrigerator and over to where Yancey's food bowl sat.
Yancey stopped yipping and gave Rhodes an aggrieved look. Rhodes didn't say anything. He was curious to see what would happen.
The cat didn't seem interested in Yancey's food, which was just as well. Rhodes remembered having heard somewhere that dog food wasn't good for cats.
Turning away from the food, the cat leveled its gaze on Yancey and walked over to investigate him. Rhodes wished he'd been counting, because Yancey was still silent and immobile. He seemed paralyzed with either fear or indecision.
The cat walked right up to him and sniffed his nose.
Yancey hopped backward down the hall and went into a paroxysm of yipping.
The cat followed along, taking its time. If it had had a white stripe down its back, Rhodes thought, it would have been a ringer for Pepe Le Pew.
Yancey stopped yipping long enough to give a low, halfhearted growl as the cat neared him. Rhodes had never heard Yancey growl before, and it was such an ineffective sound that Rhodes thought the cat might burst out laughing. Far from being intimidated, the cat reached out with one paw and gave Yancey a gentle swat on the nose.
The cat's claws were sheathed, but it didn't matter as far as the effect on Yancey went. The little dog's eyes bugged out, and he began trembling all over, now resembling a dust bunny with eyes, legs, and a vibrator inside.
The cat stood where it was, giving Yancey a cool stare, as if daring him to strike back. Yancey clearly had no intention of trying any such thing. He turned and fled from the hall, yipping all the way.
The cat watched until Yancey disappeared, then returned to its exploration of the kitchen, sniffing along the baseboards of the cabinets.
"What on earth is going on in here?" Ivy asked Rhodes as she came into the kitchen. She gave Rhodes an accusatory look. "Have you been mean to Yancey?"
"I'm completely innocent," Rhodes told her.
"That's what they all say when you arrest them. Didn't you tell me that?"
"I may have, but it's an exaggeration. Some of them don't say anything at all. Where did Yancey go?"
"He's hiding under the bed." Ivy looked around and saw the cat. "Who's that?"
"We haven't been introduced," Rhodes said.
"How did it get in here?"
"It came though the door."
Ivy put her hands on her hips. "You let a cat in the house?"
Ivy was shorter than Rhodes and didn't weigh nearly as much, but she could be imposing at times.
"It came in when I opened the door," he said. "It's all Speedo's fault. He's supposed to be the watchdog."
"They all say they're innocent, and they all blame it on somebody else. Isn't that what you told me?"
"I don't remember telling you that last part."
"Well, you did."
Rhodes wasn't convinced, but Ivy didn't seem to mind. She walked over to the stove, where the cat was pawing at a crumb that had somehow eluded the broom.
"Hey, cat," Ivy said.
The cat ignored her and continued to paw at the crumb. Rhodes grinned. He didn't know much about cats, but he knew they were good at ignoring people.
Ivy stood patiently until the cat knocked the crumb under the stove.
The cat tried to reach under the stove and retrieve its prey, but its paw wouldn't quite fit.
"That's the last you'll ever see of that crumb," Rhodes told the cat, which naturally ignored him.
But Ivy didn't. "Are you implying something about my housecleaning techniques?"
"I'm completely innocent," Rhodes said, holding up both hands, palms out.
"Don't start that innocent business again. We both know better than that. What are we going to do about the cat?"
Before Rhodes could answer, the cat turned from the stove and started arching its back against the leg of Ivy's slacks. It purred so loudly that Rhodes could hear it from where he stood across the room.
"We'll call him Sam," Ivy said.
"Bless you," Ivy said.
"I'm allergic to cats," Rhodes said.
Ivy shook her head. "That's not so. It's all psychological. You're not really allergic to anything."
Rhodes didn't think that was true, but he didn't argue. Instead he changed the subject, which he'd often found was the safest course of action.
"You can't just give the cat a name. You're not even sure it's a he."
"Sam, for Sam Spade," Ivy said. "It's a he, all right. Except that he's been fixed."
Rhodes figured she knew what she was talking about, but he had never liked the term fixed, since it implied that a healthy male animal could be improved by castration. He wondered why they hadn't called it being broken or impaired.
"He's not our cat," Rhodes said. "That's why we can't name him. He's wearing a collar."
Ivy bent down and picked up the cat. It continued to purr while she looked at the tag on the collar.
"There's no name and address on here," she said. "Just a number."
"The vet can find its owner from the number," Rhodes said. "I'll check it out."
"You won't have to do that. I happen to be familiar with this cat. That's how I know his name is Sam."
"You know who he belongs to?"
"Cats don't belong to anybody but themselves. But this one lives with Helen Harris."
Helen Harris lived a couple of blocks down the street. She was a former elementary-school teacher, about seventy, short and white-haired, and very active. Rhodes saw her out in her yard now and then, picking up small branches that had fallen from the pecan trees. Sometimes he saw her mowing the lawn. She always made him feel guilty because he hated mowing the lawn. But he had to do it. He figured that if a woman her age could mow, so could he.
Her husband, W. H. Harris, had been a teacher as well. He'd taught at Clearview High School until his retirement at age sixty-five, and he'd been Rhodes's algebra teacher, or as Harris had called it, "algebry." Rhodes hadn't learned much in the class, as Mr. Harris spent most of the time telling about how he'd lost two fingers of his left hand when working at the sawmill one summer when he was in college. Rhodes had often wondered if he'd have become a scientist or engineer instead of a sheriff if he'd learned more math. Probably not.
Mr. Harris had gotten a Realtor's license during the time he'd taught school, and he'd bought and sold a few properties after he retired. A few years later, he'd died, and Mrs. Harris had lived alone ever since.
"The funny thing is that Sam shouldn't be here," Ivy said.
"I don't mean it like that," Ivy said. "I mean that Helen never lets him out of the house. That's why he feels so much at home here. He's strictly an indoor cat."
"For an indoor cat, he seems to have had plenty of experience with dogs."
"He probably never saw one before. That's why he's not scared of Yancey."
Rhodes didn't think any cat, no matter how nervous, would have been scared of Yancey, who was most likely still cowering under the bed.
"I think you should go check on Helen," Ivy told Rhodes. "I can't think of any reason she'd let Sam out."
"You seem to know a lot about it."
"Helen's a member of the OWLS."
The Harrises had never had children, and they hadn't had many close friends that Rhodes knew about. Mrs. Harris had a brother in Montana, where he'd retired after making a lot of money as an attorney in Houston. He'd never visited her, and the two must not have been close. After her husband died, Mrs. Harris had joined several groups that had social activities because they gave her something to do, and they got her out of the house. OWLS was an acronym for Older Women's Literary Society. Ivy occasionally attended the meetings as Helen's guest because, as she said, it made her feel like a teenager to be surrounded by women who were allthirty or forty years older than she was. The women met in the library to talk about the books they were reading. Some of them brought homemade snacks to the meetings, such as chocolate chip cookies, pies, and cakes, though Ivy said she didn't eat them.
Rhodes would have gone for the snacks alone. And he would have eaten them. He probably wouldn't have read the books they discussed, however, as he preferred watching old movies, the kind that used to be shown on TV late at night and which now turned up on bargain-priced DVDs. He'd recently picked up a copy of The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price from a bargain bin, but he hadn't had time to watch it. He wondered sometimes if he ever would.
"I'd go check on Helen myself," Ivy said, "but I don't want to be late to work."
Ivy worked at an insurance agency downtown, and no one had to punch a time clock. But Ivy liked to be punctual, as Rhodes well knew.
"What about ... the cat?" he said.
Rhodes couldn't bring himself to say its name. Once you named a cat, it was your responsibility, and he didn't want to take any chances.
Ivy set the cat on the floor. "He'll be just fine. I'm sure he'll be right here when you get back."
That was what Rhodes was afraid of. "Maybe I should take him with me."
"That might not be a smart idea. What if he got away from you and got lost?"
That was a good possibility, so Rhodes tried another tack.
"If he stays here, he might terrorize Yancey."
"Not unless he can find him," Ivy said. "I wish you'd go. I'mworried about Helen. Sam wouldn't be out and about if everything was normal."
A note of concern was in her voice, and Rhodes thought that maybe she had a point.
"I'll go look in on her," he said. "Sam probably slipped out the door while she was sweeping the house or something like that."
"Maybe. If that's what happened, she'll be looking for him. You be sure to call me and let me know if everything's all right."
"I'll call," Rhodes said. "You don't have to worry. I'm sure Helen is just fine."
But he was wrong about that.
MURDER AMONG THE OWLS. Copyright © 2007 by Bill Crider. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.