A woman is dead in her apartment. The only witness? A cat. This cozy mystery featuring Detective Shaw first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post.
It’s All About the Cat
By Shannon Hollinger
It’s clear that the cat is a narcissist. Detective Shaw watches the cat stare at its own reflection in the window, licking itself with long, self-indulgent strokes of the tongue. On the floor beneath the window ledge where the cat preens, a woman lays dead in a pool of her own blood. Tiny red paw prints cover the floor. One could almost fool themselves into thinking the cat had been distraught over the woman’s death. The missing flesh from the tip of her nose and the way the cat cavalierly ignores all the humans in the room, suggests otherwise.
“Bet you wish he could talk, don’t you?” a uniformed officer says, nudging the detective with his elbow.
“It’s kind of hard not to notice.”
Detective Shaw turns toward the uniform, nose wrinkled in distaste.
Mistaking Shaw’s reaction, he says, “You must be a dog person.”
“Oh! You’re the one with the parrot. I’ve heard about him. The Professor.”
“The parrot. His name is Gilligan.”
“Oh, right. I suppose that makes more sense.”
Detective Shaw nods as the crime scene technician gathers her samples and flashes him a thumb up. He squats next to the corpse, his eyes inspecting the body from head to toe.
“So, if it was you lying here, Gilligan would tell us what happened and who did it, right?”
Shaw squints over his shoulder like an annoying gnat is buzzing in his ear.
“Hey, Petie? This guy’s the detective that has the parrot.”
“No kidding? I’ve heard about him. Skipper, right?”
“Not that, I know the bird’s name, dummy. I meant him. Detective Skipper, right?”
Shaw sighs. Standing, he claps his hands together and says, “I’d like to thank everyone for your help, but now it’s time to clear the scene.”
“What about Percival?”
“Who?” Shaw spins to face the cop called Petie.
“Percival? The cat.”
“Oh. If you want to wait around until we’re done here, you can take him with you until we notify next of kin if you want.”
“Really? Thanks, Detective Skipper.”
Shaw closes his eyes, counting until he hears the door shut. When he opens them, he finds the crime scene tech, Shirley, regarding him with sympathy as she tries not to laugh.
“Have you processed the cat yet?”
“Nope. Want to pin him down for me?”
Shaw glances at the cat. Percival yawns, his cat mouth opening impossibly wide, the gaping maw lined with tiny, razored fangs.
“Oh, come on. You two are going to have to become friends. You might as well get it over with now.”
“What do you mean?”
They stand staring at the cat. Reaching a hand up to his shoulder, Shirley gives it a squeeze. She looks up at him from the corner of her eyes, and says, “It’s not just the nose. Look at the left hand.”
Shaw follows her suggestion, his gaze zeroing in on the left hand, tucked tight against the body. His pulse quickens as he registers the bone protruding from the bloody stump of the ring finger.
“There’s no telling what he may have eaten. That cat is evidence. He’s going home with you tonight.”
“The hell. Why can’t you take him?”
“Can’t. Husband’s allergic.”
“Well, then your husband can stay with me.”
Shirley laughs, gives him a grin, then says, “Bet you wish you had a partner right about now, huh?” Shouldering her collection kit, she gathers her evidence bags.
“Where are you going?”
“I’ve got to get these samples to the lab to process.”
“But what about the cat?”
“I lied. I processed him while the M.E. was clearing the body.”
“But, wait. You can’t leave.”
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll break the bad news to poor Petie. Now, you gentlemen have a good night together, alright?”
He can hear her laughing long after the door shuts behind her.
Another seed pelts the back of his head.
“I said, I’m sorry.”
A corn kernel grazes his ear as it zooms by.
Feathers rustle as he turns to face the parrot.
“I’ve locked him in the bathroom, what more do you want from me?”
The bird rolls its pale eyes at him.
“You want to join him?”
Gilligan’s head cocks to the side. He shuffles on his perch, turning his back on Shaw.
“Like I don’t have enough on my plate.”
Detective Shaw returns to his notes, trying to recover his train of thought. The victim was a single white female, early forties, worked as a CPA for one of the larger local accounting firms. According to her neighbors she was quiet, kept to herself. No one could remember her ever having any visitors over. She lived in the coveted top floor apartment in a building with narrow halls and narrower walls, so their assessment on that front was probably accurate.
Her coworkers, who had reported her missing, considered her a hard worker, thorough, dependable, but couldn’t remember her ever mentioning any family, friends, or significant other.
The apartment had been beyond neat; every item had its place; every place was a neatly labeled container of some sort. Nothing appeared to have been taken. She didn’t own a car. She had no debts or vices that he could detect. As far as he could tell, the victim and her life had been completely unremarkable save for the fact that she had bought the apartment building before moving in, and that she was murdered.
A scratching against the bathroom door is immediately followed by an angry shriek from Gilligan. Shaw walks to the bathroom and cracks the door open. Percival sits staring up at him, fluffy tail curled neatly around his paws. If Shaw didn’t know better, he’d say the cat was smirking. Opening the door a little wider, he sees the shredded roll of toilet paper, a puddle of yellow using the grout between the tile as a flood channel, and a pile of brown on his bath mat.
He shuts the door with a sigh. How could he have forgotten the litter box? Grabbing a wad of paper towels from the kitchen, he wonders how such a small creature could hold so much mess, then freezes as he’s struck by another thought. He hadn’t brought any food or the cat’s water dish, either.
Sinking down onto one of the kitchen chairs, he goes over the apartment in his mind, mentally revisiting each room. For the life of him, he can’t recall seeing any of the accoutrements that one would expect to accompany cat ownership. Even his own place bore traces of Gilligan in every room, and the parrot spent most of his time in a cage, albeit with an open door.
Rummaging through his cupboards, Detective Shaw finds an out of date can of tuna, which he dumps onto a paper plate. Filling a bowl with water, he presents both to the cat, hoping to not incur any additional wrath. Bagging the evidence, he shoves the bathmat in a trash bag and gives the floor a quick cleaning before returning to his desk.
Shaw arrives at the station early the next morning, and he’s already made two stops. The first was the apartment building of his crime scene, where he had hung a poster displaying the very best of his limited arts and crafts skills. The second was a pet store, where he spent a ridiculous amount of money purchasing cat food and a litter box, and though he’d never admit it, a cat bed and a few toys.
After leaving several baggies of ‘evidence’ on Shirley’s desk, he heads over to the Medical Examiner’s Office to check on his victim. Entering the autopsy suite, he finds Doc Hastings working over the deceased on the examination table.
“Detective Shaw! Heard you have yourself a new roommate.”
“Don’t people have anything better to talk about?”
“Good news travels fast.”
“I think your definition of good differs from mine.”
“Do you have anything that would help with, oh, I don’t know, the case?”
“You’re no fun today.”
“I’m no fun every day.”
“True.” Returning his attention to the body, Hastings says. “The findings on your victim are pretty cut and dried. She suffered from a single stab wound to the chest. The left ventricle was severed. It’s likely she was immediately incapacitated. Would have been unconscious as she bled out.”
“What can you tell me about the weapon.”
“I took a cast of the wound for you, but I feel fairly confident that you’re looking for a pair of scissors.”
“Really? You ever work a case where scissors were used in a pre-mediated act?”
“I’ve actually never worked one where scissors were used in a murder. I had one where a lady was running and tripped and stabbed herself once.”
“That actually happens?”
“Hmm. Any defensive wounds?”
“Not even a scratch. Poor gal never saw it coming.”
“That’s consistent with the theory I’m working.”
“Care to share?”
“Ouch. At least tell me about the decedent. Who was she? The cranky spinster? A crazy cat lady?”
“I don’t think either would really apply.”
“But she had a cat.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
Placing the victim’s liver on the scale, Hastings spoke the weight into his Dictaphone, giving Shaw a dirty look over the top of his glasses. “Why are you being so difficult today? Are you missing the cat?”
“Nothing. So, we’re thinking it wasn’t premeditated. Do you concur?”
“Which means it was either a crime of opportunity or passion.”
“There are other options.”
“Is that what you think this was?”
“No, not entirely.”
“Are you trying to crush my last nerve?”
“I am not.”
“Then say something useful. Or interesting. Either will do.” He dictates the weight and appearance of the kidneys, then peers at Shaw over his glasses once more. “You may begin.”
Crossing his arms, Shaw leans against the empty dissection table behind him, the metal cold through the thin fabric of his slacks. “We agree that the crime was not planned.”
“And the victim doesn’t have any defensive wounds, which would support that she didn’t see the attack coming.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“The cat belongs to the killer.”
“Wait. What?” Hastings stops, arms frozen in the act of running the bowel.
“There were no signs that the cat belonged in the apartment. No water dish, no food, no cat box. Nothing.”
“Now, that is interesting.”
Shaw nods. “I think the cat belongs to one of the other tenants in the building. I think the cat followed his owner upstairs when they went to talk to the victim and got left behind when the killer panicked after committing the crime.”
“So, what are the other tenants in the building like?”
“They’re all women.”
“Ah, so it’s the killer who’s the crazy cat lady, not the victim. What are you thinking for motive?”
“I haven’t a clue.”
“Then, for your sake, Detective, I hope your theory pans out.”
Detective Shaw’s phone sounds the Jaws theme from his coat pocket. He glances at the screen, then heads towards the door. “With any luck, this’ll be my proof.”
Shaw waits for the doors to swing shut behind him before answering.
“Um, yes, I think you found my cat.”
The voice on the other end of the line is that of an older female. He quickly matches it to one of the faces he saw while interviewing the neighbors the day before.
“I just may have. Can you describe the cat for me?”
An irritated sigh is followed by a beat of silence. “Really.”
“Well . . .”
“If you insist. He’s a Siamese, blue eyes, tan and chocolate fur, has a collar with the name Percival on it.”
“Yep, that’s the cat I found.”
“When can you return him?”
“When would be convenient for you?”
Another sigh, like he’s being difficult. “I’d like him returned as soon as possible.”
“Well, I’m at work, but if I left now, I could pick the cat up and be there within an hour if that would work for you?”
“I suppose it’ll have to, won’t it?”
“And what’s the address?”
“What kind of question is that? You put the flyer up, don’t you remember?”
“I put flyers up in several buildings in the area, ma’am,” Shaw lied. “I found the cat out by my trash cans. I wasn’t sure which building the cat may have come from.”
“My Percival never would have gone outside on his own. There’s no reward, you know.”
“I’m not interested in a reward, ma’am, I just want to return the cat to his rightful owner.”
“Hmf. Well, it took you long enough. He’s been gone almost three days already.”
“The address, ma’am.”
“82 Elm, #3. I’ll expect you within the hour.”
Pocketing the phone, Shaw pokes his head back into the autopsy suite and asks, “Hey, Doc. You got a time of death for me, yet?”
“Myofilament decomposition would place death between 60 to 75 hours.”
“Perfect, Doc, thanks. Gotta run.”
“Yeah, yeah. You detectives are all the same. You only want me for my . . .” Finding himself alone, Doc Hastings sighs, returning his attention to the task at hand.
The door opens, revealing a sturdy looking woman in her sixties, a scowl below her glasses, frown lines in heavily creased folds above them.
“Where’s my cat?”
Shaw flashes his badge. “I’m Detective Shaw, ma’am. We spoke yesterday about your neighbor.” He gestures with his eyes to the apartment above them.
“I told you everything I have to say. I’m busy.”
“Waiting for Percival?”
Her face scrunches, eyes narrowed, lips puckered. “What do you know about that?”
“You called me earlier. I made the flyer.” Hearing a snicker from further down the hallway, Shaw clears his throat loudly. “I’m the one who found your cat.”
“Percival would never leave the building. He never goes anywhere without me. I’ve had him since he was a kitten. He follows me around like a puppy dog.”
“That’s just what I suspected.”
“Yes. Which is why I have this warrant here granting me permission to search your apartment.”
She snatches the paper from his outstretched hand, glaring at him as she skims the text.
“This is ridiculous. You’re not coming in. You’re not welcomed.”
Footsteps approach as Shaw says, “That piece of paper says I don’t need a welcome. Now, if you’ll step aside, ma’am.”
“I most certainly will not!”
Two uniformed officers step up, one at each of Shaw’s elbows.
“You don’t understand,” she says. Her body deflates as Shaw squeezes past her into the apartment.
“I understand enough,” Shaw says. “I understand that your cat, the one that follows you around like a dog, was found in the victim’s apartment upstairs. I understand that you’ve already put a call in to the property management company, requesting to move to the victim’s apartment. And,” Shaw says, pointing to a sheet of paper on the kitchen counter, “I understand that you have a piece of the victim’s mail in your possession. Ask Shirley to bag this, will you, boys.”
“You don’t understand,” she repeats. “Look at that bill,” she gestures to the piece of stolen mail on the counter. “Look at what she pays. $60 in the middle of winter in Massachusetts. $60! Do you know what I pay? Closer to $300! I can’t keep paying that on my pension. What was I supposed to do? Keep letting her steal all my heat for free after she stole my apartment?”
Shaw lifts an eyebrow.
“My ability to get by on my retirement was based on living in that apartment with that heating bill. I started out on the ground floor of this place almost twenty years ago and have been working my way up since. When the last tenant was moved to a care home, somehow that witch swooped in and stole the apartment from me. Then, when I went up there to ask her to split the electric bill since I was paying for her heat, she refused. Threatened to have me evicted for stealing her mail.”
“Got it!” Shirley came out of the bathroom, a pair of scissors held up triumphantly in one of her gloved hands. In the other, she held a cotton swab with a pink tip.
“I didn’t mean to . . . I didn’t mean what happened. Honest. I was just so mad. When she refused to tell me how she finagled her way into the apartment that was rightfully mine . . .”
“I’ve got the answer to that one,” Shaw says. “She actually had every right to the apartment.”
He watches her face turn several shades of purple.
“You see, she bought the building.” Without waiting for a response, Shaw gives the uniformed officers a nod and leaves, the click of the handcuffs following him out the door.
Detective Shaw struggles to unlock the door, maintaining a precarious grip on the bags he’s juggling. “Gilligan, I’m home.” Shaw sets the bags on the table, untwisting the noose one of the plastic handles has dug into his wrist. “Gilligan?”
Entering the living room, the first thing he sees is the open bathroom door. The second is the empty birdcage.
A halfhearted squawk carries from the couch. Shaw stares at the scene, sinking slowly into the armchair behind him. The cat opens his blue eyes just a slit and smirks at him, then stretches his back legs farther across the couch. Behind him, the parrot continues to groom the fur behind the cat’s ear with his beak. Pausing, he cocks his head at Shaw, whistles, and says, “Pretty kitty.”
“Don’t be an enabler,” Shaw says. Covering his face with his hand, he can’t help peeking through his fingers. He grins.
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