Dr. Couch Saves a Cat
by Nancy Pickard
"It may seem terrible," the old veterinarian admitted to his granddaughter, "that I was so worried about a cat when there was a person who had just passed on. But it was an awfully nice cat, and the human being wasn't much to brag about, I'm sorry to say."
"Tell me about the cat, Grandpa."
"A child after my own heart."
The old man smiled at the ten-year-old whose hair was the same shade of shiny walnut that his had been seventy years ago and who was a stringbean, as he had been in his youth, and who also had inherited his unusual shade of light brown eyes. Her name was Frances--which she hated, except for the fact that she was named after him--and so she went by Frankie. His name was Franklin Couch. Everybody except the child--even his own daughters, sometimes--called him Dr. Frank. He was a formal sort of man with most people, a trait he deeply regretted when he gauged the emotional distance between him and his daughters. With animals and small children, however, he was magic. Butterflies landed on him, shy little house spiders climbed down walls until they were face-to-face in conversation with him, wild doves allowed him to pick them up and cradle them in his hands before gently putting them back down again. Dogs who barked, lunged, and bit at every other vet bared their teeth in goofy smiles at Dr. Frank. Cats he'd nev
er met before rubbed their foreheads hard against his own and tapped their paws against his cheeks, their claws politely tucked away.
Children such as his own granddaughter tended to run up to his side and slip their hands into his. His daughters had done that, too, when they were little, but now he couldn't recall the last time he'd held their hands. Adults of the human species were a puzzle to him, mysteries to which he knew he hadn't a clue. His wife, Lorraine, was long dead, so he couldn't ask her how to reach his own girls again. It was when she died that he'd felt them slipping away; it was Lorraine, he then understood, who had long bridged the gap between them.
Dr. Frank observed the pert, upturned face of his granddaughter, whom he loved so much it made his heart swell and hurt, and felt sad at the thought of one day watching her, too, disappear into the mists of adulthood.
"Meow," she teased him.
He heard her and smiled.
It was how she called him out of the reveries into which he often sank these days, like an old dog in a patch of sunlight. His grandchild knew him well, he thought ruefully: If his phone barked instead of rang, he'd probably answer it more often.
"It's a murder story," he warned her. "Are you sure you want to hear it?"
"Oh, yes! As long as only people die. No animals, right?"
"I promise no animals die in this story."
He knew exactly how she felt and couldn't agree with her more.
"The victim was a man named Joseph Becker," he said, settling back into the easy chair while she also settled herself more comfortably in the crook of his right arm, squeezed into the tiny space between him and the side of his chair. He heard her give a contented little sigh, and felt like giving one just like it himself. "Joe Becker was a good-looking man in his thirties who was a partner in a small business that, um--" Dr. Couch thought, searching for a simple method of getting across to a ten-year-old the idea of a middleman, "--that bought crops that farmers grew and sold them to big businesses. Most of the young men of our generation had gone off to fight in World War Two, but Joe Becker couldn't go, because he had flat feet."
Young Dr. Franklin Couch hadn't gone to war, either, not because he was a veterinarian, but because he was an only son who was already the sole support of a wife, two little daughters, and, to a lesser degree, his elderly parents. Often he wondered how his life would have been different if he'd served in the military--whether his life would have continued at all. There were times when he felt embarrassed among men of his own generation who had gone to Europe or the South Pacific or Asia. He suspected that feeling of embarrassment--which was partly guilt, but mostly just the sense of being an outsider--may have had something to do with why he had never made any close friends of his own age. It was almost as if he and other men his age didn't have much in common. They had the war. He had dogs and cats, birds and kids; and those were his social peers, it seemed.
On the whole, that was all right with him.
He'd never told anyone how he felt about himself and the war, not even Lorraine. She'd have told him he was silly, that it was a great accomplishment for a man to support a family and to serve his community, as he had done. But her words wouldn't have changed his feelings, he knew. And so there had never been any point in telling her.
"Meow?" said his granddaughter.
"Oh, yes. Joe Becker. Well, the unfortunate young man was found one Sunday in the autumn of nineteen forty-four, bashed in the head with a frying pan in his kitchen in his apartment. I knew Becker, you see, and I also knew all of the people who were considered suspects in his murder. Or at least I knew their pets. Becker, for instance, had a lovely little Siamese named Annie."
"Is that the cat you worried about, Grandpa?"
"That's the cat. But there were also all of the suspects and their animals. Some of the suspects had access but no opportunity, and some of them had opportunity but no motive, and--"
"What's a motive, Grandpa?"
He realized he was going to have to slow down and tell the story in a simple, logical fashion so the child could follow him. "A motive, Frankie, is a stupid reason for doing a bad thing."
"Like the ex-wife, who wished Becker was dead so she could sell the apartment building they both still owned together, the one where they were both residing in separate units at the time that he was killed. The ex-wife, Mary Becker, was in apartment One-A, and Becker himself was in Two-B."
"Was she pretty?"
"Who? Mrs. Becker? I don't recall, but she had the ugliest old marmalade tom you ever saw. Name of JamPot. I certainly remember that. I'm sure he hated it; I would. JamPot! Some people have no sense of propriety or dignity when it comes to naming their animals! Poor JamPot. I don't think that cat ever won a single fight he was in, to judge by the number of times she'd had to bring him round to me to get him fixed up and stitched. He probably should have been neutered, although that might not have solved his problem. I've seen plenty of neutered toms'd take Mike Tyson out
in two rounds. No, I suspect JamPot just had bad timing--always throwing his punches late, so to speak. He used to take a swipe at me when I treated him, but I always got my hand away in time. Poor timing, that was JamPot's problem.
"Anyway, the trouble with his owner as a suspect was that she had motive and access, but she apparently didn't have opportunity. The ex-Mrs. Becker claimed she was in Chicago visiting her mother at the time that her former husband was killed. From the police point of view, Mary Becker had bad timing, just like her cat."
"You always say people are like their animals."
"Do I always say that?"
"About once a day that I know of." She grinned up at him, her neck cocked as if she were looking up at the sun. "You probably say it other times when I'm not around."
He laughed, utterly delighted to be teased.
Adults, he knew, were rather intimidated by him, by his size, his age, his reputation. They tended to treat him with a reserve and respect he supposed they thought he deserved. On the whole, he much preferred to be teased.
"So, Grandpa, what's access? What's opportunity?"
Her grandfather was amused and pleased that he didn't have to explain neutered to her, but he did have to explain the legal parlance of a homicide investigation. You could tell she hung around vets and not lawyers! Good child! He quirked a bushy silver eyebrow at her and pretended to look stern.
"Access is being able to pull up a chair to the bookcase so you can reach my private collection of Hershey's Kisses with Almonds!"
He observed her eyes get large and her face grow pink.
"Opportunity is when you're in my office alone and I'm in the bathroom with the door closed!"
He watched her scrunch up her face so tight that her
"And motive is ..." He waited for her eyes to open,
and then he smiled at her. "Well, in the case of Hershey's Kisses, it's not a stupid and bad reason; it's a perfectly understandable and intelligent one, which is a wish for a taste of chocolate."
"I didn't take any pieces of candy!"
"When didn't you take any?"
She thought about that, examined the twinkle in his eyes, and said judiciously, "Almost never."
Her grandfather guffawed, enormously impressed at how sharp she was. "That's a good one, Frankie!" He chuckled. "You almost never didn't take any!"
"I don't really like almonds."
"Then they will never darken my candy bowl again. But listen, child, you could break your neck climbing up on that chair." She was just like her miniature dachshund, he thought with pride, always aiming for things that were way above her head. "I'll put the bowl on a lower shelf. Now, do you want to hear about any of the other suspects in my little murder mystery?"
"I do! Especially the parts about their pets that you knew. And especially the part where you were worried about Mr. Becker's cat. Annie. The Siamese."
"Well, here's what happened," he began again happily. "You know about the victim now?"
"Joe Becker," the child recited. "Bashed. Frying pan."
"Kitchen of where he lived. Um." She thought hard. "Apartment Two-A."
"No. Two-B. Remember, his ex-wife lived in One-A."
"Wait, wait!" commanded the child, excitedly. "Let me say it! Her name was Sherry, and she had a big marmalade tom named JamPot who never won any fights, and she couldn't have done it, because she was ... someplace else."
"Her name was Mary," he corrected, gently, fully sympathetic to the fact that it was easier to recall the names of animals than people. "And it was Chicago. But you got everything else right. And what might have been her reason for wanting him dead?"
"She wanted his apartment?"
"She wanted to own the whole building so she could sell it."
Frankie lifted a delicate brown eyebrow. "Greedy pig."
"People often are, unfortunately. Now let me tell you about the other suspects in the murder."
"And their motives, opportunities, and excess."
"Access, although you have a point there." He laughed. "Excess! Yes indeed, you would certainly find that was true in almost any murder case, I suspect. There would be an excess of something, wouldn't there, whether it was greed, or fear, or whatever."
"Other suspects," she reminded him.
"Yes. Well, there was Nancy Okawa, for instance, who had a nervous, skinny little white tomcat. She had access because she was Becker's girlfriend and so she had a key to his apartment, and she had opportunity, because she was in and out of the apartment all the time, but she didn't have any apparent motive."
"Like wanting chocolate," Frankie commented.
"Exactly. Apparently there wasn't anything the equivalent of chocolate that Nancy Okawa wanted that would require the death of her boyfriend, Joe Becker. She said she loved him madly. She appeared to be grief-stricken."
"What was her cat's name, Grandpa?"
Frankie reacted disdainfully. "Sounds like a horse's name to me."
"I know, but it was perfect, because he was full of electricity."
The child laughed, and Dr. Couch knew she was picturing in her agile, imaginative mind a skinny white cat that was constantly jumping and racing about.
"You're too young to know this," her grandfather continued, "but there is a clue to the victim's character in the name of his girlfriend. Can you possibly guess what it is?"
Frankie frowned in heavy thought, and repeated to herself several times in a low voice, "Nancy Okawa, Nancy Okawa, Nancy Okawa." Suddenly she brightened. "Was she, like, Japanese? Is that the clue?"
"Very good! Nancy wasn't 'like' Japanese; she was a child of Japanese parents who had immigrated to this country soon after she was born. These days people feel free to fall in love with anybody they want to, but in those days there was a lot of prejudice when a white person went around with a person of a different race, not to mention the fact that this country was at war with Japan, so a lot people looked on Nancy Okawa as the enemy. She had even lived in a concentration camp with her parents for a time in California. Now what does this suggest to you about the character of our victim, Joseph Becker?"
"He didn't care what anybody thought?" Frankie guessed.
"Brilliant child. That is exactly right, although it wasn't precisely the same thing as courage or even tolerance. Becker was just an aggressive, imperious sort of fellow who didn't let anybody or anything stand in the way of what he wanted, not other people's prejudices, not even a war."
"He sounds like a Siamese."
"Some Siamese, you're right. But his lovely Annie was elegantly imperious, like a benevolent queen, while he had always struck me as being a bit of a thug. I should tell you that Annie was a housecat, Frankie. Becker never, never, never allowed her to go outside or anywhere else, for that matter, because he wanted to breed her and make money from her litters."
Again the delicate eyebrow lifted. "Greedy pig."
"There's a lot of that to go around in this story," her grandfather admitted. "Perhaps I should tell you how I became involved."
"It was simple, really. I received a summons from the man who was our police chief at the time. He sent one of his fellows over to fetch me, because Annie had crawled up on top of Joe Becker's shower-curtain pole, and she was hissing at all of the police officers and she wouldn't come down. He just wanted me to come get her and take her away from the scene of the murder."
"So you saw it!" The child's light brown eyes were huge with awe.
"Blood and all," her grandfather agreed.
They both nodded in mutual satisfaction.
"I saw Becker's body in the kitchen," the old man told her. "And I got a good look around the whole apartment, because Annie gave me quite a little chase!"
They smiled, then laughed together, he at the memory of his undignified pursuit of the furious feline and she at the idea of her big old grandfather racing around after a cat.
"I brought her home with me," he continued. "And I examined her, because she had a little blood on her, and that's when I discovered she was--"
But the eager, curious child interrupted him. "What'd you see in Mr. Becker's apartment? Was it full of cops? Did you find any clues? Was his girlfriend there?"
"No, but his upstairs neighbor was, because he always looked after Annie whenever Joe Becker was traveling on business. It was the neighbor who called the police to tell them he'd found the body. His name was Alastair Reynolds, and he owned a local bakery."
She wasn't interested in that. "Did he have a pet?"
"Everybody in this story had a pet." Her grandfather smiled. "Alastair Reynolds, the baker, had a big, sweet-natured tom named, appropriately enough, Sugar. Sugar was one of my favorite patients. He was a handsome fellow, all soft and shiny black except for three white paws. He looked as if he had stepped in the flour when his owner was baking bread."
Frankie pressed her hands against her grandfather's upper right arm and worked her fingers up and down as if she were a baker kneading bread or a cat kneading his arm. If he could have purred, he would have at that perfect moment in his long life.
"I haven't told you about the partner yet, have I?"
"Whose partner? Mr. Becker's? Tell me, tell me."
"Yes, Joe Becker's partner in the food distribution business was a big blond fellow who never smiled, by the name of Quentin Dees. He didn't have any cats or even a wife, but he did have three Doberman pinschers that he kept locked up behind a high fence at this house. I do believe they were the most sinister dogs I ever met, because they prowled constantly but never made a sound. Instead of barking at strangers, those three dogs would come together in a trio at the fence line and bare their teeth at you. It was worth your life to step onto that property unannounced."
Frankie shivered pleasurably in the crook of his arm and whispered, "What did he call them?"
"He didn't give them names. He would just call Dog in a sharp, high voice, and they all three would obey him instantly."
"I don't like that man, Grandpa!"
"No reason you should, Frankie."
The child suddenly looked excited. "I'll bet he killed Mr. Becker, didn't he?"
"Well, now wait," he cautioned. "Let's not rush to any conclusions. You may be right, or you may not. Hop up and get us a handful of Hershey's Kisses, and we'll examine the evidence. They're not on the upper shelf anymore, Frankie; they're on top of my desk. In case you hadn't noticed."
She grinned and scooted down from his lap.
When she hopped back up, she had a double handful of candy to pour into his own cupped hands. Fastidiously, Frankie picked the plain Hersheys without nuts out of the pile he patiently held for her. Only when she was finished did he shift the remaining sweets to his left palm so that he could open the silver wrappings with his right hand. For a few contented moments, grandfather and grandchild rustled paper and chewed chocolate together. "When you're older," he observed, "you'll like the almond ones better."
They allowed the foil and the little white streamers to drift to the carpet below them.
"I am thinking," Dr. Frank said, as with a bare finger he dabbed a speck of chocolate off a corner of her mouth, "that there may be no way you can guess the truth about this story, because you don't have the memories of wartime that adults have. There is certain crucial information that you're missing--at least one clue that a grownup might be able to surmise just from what I have told you so far--but if I tell you what it is, you'll guess the truth immediately." He surreptitiously wiped his brown fingertip on the underside of the upholstered arm of the chair. "What should I do, Frankie, tell you or not tell you?"
"Don't tell me! Let me guess!"
"All right." He wrinkled his forehead in thought, and when he did, his granddaughter kissed the side of his face. As if her kiss had given him inspiration, he suddenly smiled brightly and said, "I know. There's another way to allow you to figure out the truth, and you don't even have to be eighty years old to do it. What I started to tell you earlier was that when I brought Annie home with me, I examined her because she had a little blood on her."
"Was she hurt?"
Her grandfather realized that although he had promised her no animals would die in the story, he had neglected to guarantee that none of them would be harmed at all.
"No, no," he assured her, quickly. "It was her owner's blood, not hers. No, when I examined her I discovered that what Annie was, was pregnant."
"But he never let her out of the apartment!"
Her grandfather gave her a meaningful stare. "Exactly!"
"Is that the clue?" she asked, excitedly.
He merely smiled and said nothing to assist her.
The child thought and thought, but she was only ten years old, and finally she cried out in frustration, "I don't get it! How can I tell who killed Mr. Becker from just knowing that Annie was going to have kittens?"
Dr. Frank hugged and patted her. "You'll get it. I'll tell you a bit more of the story, and then you'll figure out why that clue is so important."
"Okay," she said a little sulkily.
Her grandfather thought for a moment about how to tell the remainder of it so that it would be impossible for her to guess wrong. "At first," he continued, "the police were sure the girlfriend did it, probably just because she was of Japanese ancestry. But even they had to admit she didn't seem to have any motive for killing him, and she was too short to have been able to reach up and clobber him so effectively with the frying pan."
"He could have been bending over," Frankie pointed out.
"Perhaps they didn't think of that," her grandfather said, keeping his expression quite serious.
The child looked once again satisfied with her own intelligence.
"Then, when they couldn't pin it on her, they decided the wife did it, because she did have a motive ..."
"But no opportunity!" Frankie crowed.
"I told you the mean partner did it--I told you he did it!"
"Well, Frankie, that is very astute character analysis on your part, because the police discovered that Joe Becker and Quentin Dees had also been partners in an illegal business called the black market. During wartime, you see, certain goods were what was called rationed, which meant that the most important substances, like flour and sugar and butter and rubber and nylon, were put aside for the war effort, leaving only a little for the rest of us to share for domestic purposes on the home front." He gazed into her eyes, which was a little like looking backwards through time into a photograph of his own eyes when he was a boy. "Do you understand what I just said?"
"Do I have to understand it?" she asked candidly.
Her grandfather laughed. "No, not really. I'll just say one more thing about it, which is that these men were diverting some of the goods they bought from farmers and selling those goods illegally to private individuals instead of to the government."
"Is that why his partner killed him?"
"The police arrested his partner, Quentin Dees, after they discovered the illegal business the two men had been conducting. Dees admitted that Joe Becker had decided to get out of the business, because it was getting too dangerous and he was afraid of getting caught. They accused Quentin Dees of killing him to prevent him from ever telling anybody what they had been doing."
"That was his ... motive?"
Dr. Frank nodded.
"Did he have"--carefully she pronounced it--"access?"
"And opportunity? Yes, indeed. He had a key to the apartment, and he was even seen leaving there the morning that Becker was killed. The neighbor reported hearing the two men yelling at each other and then seeing Dees leave by the front door."
"That was dumb!"
"For a murderer, yes."
"Is that the end of the story?" She didn't look entirely satisfied, her grandfather noticed. He certainly didn't want to disappoint her.
"Not exactly," he said. "There is one more loose end we have to tie up. Can you think what it is?"
He could almost see all the many details of the story he had told her going rapidly through her bright mind as she reviewed them, searching for the loose end. He could even tell when, a second before she announced it, she found it.
"Annie!" she shouted triumphantly. "Her kittens!"
"One kitten," the old vet said. "Annie only had one kitten in that first litter. Can you imagine what it looked like, Frankie?"
"A Siamese, of course."
"No, it didn't look very much like a Siamese."
Suddenly, the child's eyes grew wide and her mouth dropped open."Oh, my gosh! What did it look like, Grandpa, what did it look like?"
"What could it look like, Frankie?"
"Oh, gosh, oh, gosh, let me remember all the cats!" She was bouncing up and down on his lap, so excited she couldn't stay still. "There was the skinny little white tom that Mr. Becker's girlfriend owned, and there was the pretty black tom with white paws that the upstairs neighbor owned, and there was the ugly old marmalade tom that the ex-wife owned. Grandpa! The partner owned dogs! He didn't kill Mr. Becker! He didn't kill Mr. Becker, did he?!"
"No, Frankie, he didn't."
"Whichever tomcat that Annie's kitten looked like, it was that cat's owner that killed him, wasn't it?"
"Yes, it was, Frankie."
"Don't tell me, don't tell me!"
For a few long moments, the child sat deep in thought.
When she finally looked up at him, she looked much calmer, even sure of herself. "JamPot's owner was in Chicago, so she didn't do it. Lightning's owner really loved Mr. Becker, and she didn't have any reason to kill him, so she didn't do it. Grandpa, was the baby kitty black with three white paws?"
Solemnly, he nodded. "Just as if he had stepped in flour."
"It was the neighbor," Frankie announced, with equal solemnity. Then she looked frustrated again. "But why did he do it? He had opportunity--because he was there that Sunday. And he had access, I guess--because he must have had a key if he was taking care of Annie when Mr. Becker traveled. But what was his motive, Grandpa?"
He smiled at her. "That's the part you'd have to be a grownup to have guessed. Remember I said he was a local baker, Frankie? What do bakers need to do their job? Things like flour, butter, and sugar, all of which were rationed and difficult for small bakers to get in the quantities they needed in order to keep their businesses going. The upstairs neighbor was a very ambitious man who wanted his little bakery to grow, not merely keep going. He'd been purchasing black-market goods from Mr. Becker, and when Becker announced he couldn't do that anymore, he flew into a rage and grabbed the frying pan and beat him with it."
"Oh," said Frankie, nodding wisely.
"As for the cats," her grandfather concluded, "as you may imagine, the baker wasn't a very ethical person. He knew how persnickety Mr. Becker was about Annie, but he didn't care. So when Mr. Becker was out of town, sometimes he left the doors open, and his own sweet black tomcat followed him inside. And that's how it happened."
"But Grandpa, you always say that people are like their cats. If Sugar was really so sweet, how could her owner be such a bad man?"
He smiled at her. "The baker had a very nice wife."
"So Sugar the boy cat fell in love with Annie the girl cat, and they had a baby kitty named--?"
"Did they get married?"
"No, dear, they had Cupcake out of wedlock."
A noise at the doorway made both of them look around.
There stood Frankie's mother, who was Dr. Frank's youngest daughter, looking in at them.
"Dad," she said, "do you think a story like that is appropriate for a child her age?"
"Oh, dear, I don't know. I'm sorry! Do you think ..."
"Let's wait until she's a little older, shall we?"
"Oh, well, yes, if you think so ..."
"Yes," his daughter continued, "we can wait awhile longer for the birds and the bees."
Her father thought: Birds and bees? That was what she objected to? As he lifted Frankie off his lap so she could run to her mother, he happily thought: Great! If that's all the problem is, next time I'll tell Frankie about the dog who caught a serial murderer!
At the doorway, the child turned around to ask one last question. "What happened to Sugar and Annie and Cupcake, Grandpa?"
"Sugar stayed with the baker's nice wife," he told her. "And I gave Annie and Cupcake to a kind family who lived in the country. I drove them both out together on Arbor Day of that year, and it was wonderful to get to see Annie run and play outside for once in her life. I even got to see her climb a tree, as if she were celebrating her own personal, very first Arbor Day."
"Oh, Dad," said his daughter, laughing.
But his granddaughter nodded, as if she understood everything perfectly. They smiled at each other as her mother gently pulled her from the room. After a moment of sitting still and listening to their departure, Dr. Frank bent over to begin to pick up the silver foil and white paper streamers that littered the carpet at his feet.
Excerpted from Cat Crimes for the Holidays by Martin H. Greenberg. Copyright © 1999 by Martin H. Greenberg/Ed Gorman. Excerpted by permission of Ivy Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.