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Authors: Shirley Rousseau Murphy

Cat in the Dark

BOOK: Cat in the Dark
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Cat in the Dark
Shirley Rousseau Murphy

For those who wonder about their cats.
And for the cats who don't need to wonder,
for the cats who know.

And, of course, for Joe Cat.
And this time, too, for Luby and
skybound E.L.T.

And always for Pat for his laughter
in the right places
and his support and advice.

T
HE CAT
crouched in darkness beneath the library desk, her tabby stripes mingled with the shadows, her green eyes flashing light, her tail switching impatiently as she watched the last patrons linger around the circulation counter. Did humans
have
to dawdle, wasting their time and hers? What
was
it about closing hour that made people so incredibly slow?

Above her the library windows were black, and out in the night the oaks' ancient branches twisted against the glass, the moon's rising light reflecting along their limbs and picking out the rooftops beyond. The time was nine-fifteen. Time to turn out the lights. Time to leave these hallowed rooms to her. Would people never leave? She was so irritated she almost shouted at them to get lost, that this was her turf now.

Beyond the table and chair legs, out past the open door, the library's front garden glowed waxen in the moonlight, the spider lilies as ghostly pale as the white reaching fingers of a dead man. Three women moved out into the garden along the stone path,
beneath the oak trees' dark shelter, heading toward the street; behind them, Mavity Flowers hurried out toting her heavy book bag, her white maid's uniform as bright as moonstruck snow, her gray, wiry hair ruffled by the sea wind. Her white polyester skirt was deeply wrinkled in the rear from sitting for nearly an hour delving through the romance novels, choosing half a dozen unlikely dreams in which to lose herself. Dulcie imagined Mavity hastening home to her tiny cottage, making herself a cup of tea, getting comfy, maybe slipping into her bathrobe and putting her feet up for an evening's read—for a few hours' escape and pleasure after scrubbing and vacuuming all day in other people's houses.

Mavity was a dear friend of Dulcie's housemate; she and Wilma had known each other since elementary school, more than fifty years. Wilma was the tall one, strong and self-sufficient, while Mavity was such a small person, so wrinkled and frail-looking that people treated her as if she should be watched over—even if she did work as hard as a woman half her age. Mavity wasn't a cat lover, but she and Dulcie were friends. She always stroked Dulcie and talked to her when she stopped by Wilma's; Mavity told Dulcie she was beautiful, that her chocolate-dark stripes were as lovely as mink, that Dulcie was a very special cat.

But the little lady had no idea how special. The truth would have terrified her. The notion that Dulcie had read (and found tedious) most of the stories that she, herself, was toting home tonight, would have shaken Mavity Flowers right down to her scruffy white oxfords.

Through the open front door, Dulcie watched Mavity hurry to the corner and turn beneath the yellow glow of the streetlamp to disappear down the dark
side street into a tunnel of blackness beneath a double row of densely massed eucalyptus trees. But within the library, seven patrons still lingered.

And from the media room at the back, four more dawdlers appeared, their feet scuffing along inches from Dulcie's nose—silk-clad ankles in stilted high heels, a boy's bony bare feet in leather sandals, a child's little white shoes and lace-ruffled white socks following Mama's worn loafers. And all of them as slow as cockroaches in molasses, stopping to examine the shelved books and flip through the racked magazines. Dulcie, hunching against the carpet, sighed and closed her eyes. Dawdling was a
cat's
prerogative, humans didn't have the talent. Only a cat could perform that slow, malingering dance, the
half-in-half-out-the-door
routine, with the required insolence and grace.

She was not often so rude in her assessment of human frailties. During the daytime hours, she was a model of feline amenity, endlessly obliging to the library patrons, purring for them and smiling when the old folks and children petted and fussed over her, and she truly loved them. Being official library cat was deeply rewarding. And at home with Wilma she considered herself beautifully laid-back; she and Wilma had a lovely life together. But when night fell, when the dark winds shook the oaks and pines and rattled the eucalyptus leaves, her patina of civilization gave way and the ancient wildness rose in her, primitive passions took her—and a powerful and insatiable curiosity drove her. Now, eager to get on with her own agenda, she was stifled not only by lingering humans but was put off far more by the too-watchful gaze of the head librarian.

Jingling her keys, Freda Brackett paced before the circulation desk as sour-faced as a bad-tempered pos
sum and as impatient for people to leave as was Dulcie herself—though for far different reasons. Freda couldn't wait to be free of the books and their related routines for a few hours, while Dulcie couldn't wait to get at the thousands of volumes, as eager as a child waiting to be alone in the candy store.

Freda had held the position of head librarian for two months. During that time, she had wasted not an ounce of love on the library and its contents, on the patrons, or on anyone or anything connected with the job. But what could you expect of a political appointee?

The favorite niece of a city council member, Freda had been selected over several more desirable applicants among the library's own staff. Having come to Molena Point from a large and businesslike city library, she ran this small, cozy establishment in the same way. Her only objective was to streamline operations until the Molena Point Library functioned as coldly and impersonally as the institution she had abandoned. In just two months the woman's rigid rules had eaten away at the warm, small-village atmosphere like a rat demolishing last night's cake.

She discouraged the villagers from using the library as a meeting place, and she tried to deter any friendliness among the staff. Certainly she disapproved of librarians being friends with the patrons—an impossibility in a small town. Her rules prevented staff from performing special favors for any patron and she even disapproved of helping with book selection and research, the two main reasons for library service.

And as for Dulcie, an official library cat was an abomination. A cat on the premises was as inappropriate and unsanitary as a dog turd on Freda's supper plate.

But a political appointee didn't have to care about the job, they were in it only for the money or prestige. If they loved their work they would have excelled at it and thus been hired on their own merits. Political appointees were, in Dulcie's opinion, always bad news. Just last summer a police detective who was handed his job by the mayor created near disaster in the village when he botched a murder investigation.

Dulcie smiled, licking her whiskers.

Detective Marritt hadn't lasted long, thanks to some quick paw-work. She and Joe Grey, moving fast, had uncovered evidence so incriminating that the real killer had been indicted, and Detective Marritt had been fired—out on the street. A little feline intervention had made him look like mouse dirt.

She wished they could do the same number on Freda.

Behind the circulation desk, Dulcie's housemate, Wilma Getz, moved back and forth arranging books on the reserve shelf, her long, silver hair bound back with a turquoise clip, her white turtleneck sweater and black blazer setting off to advantage her slim, faded jeans. The two women were about the same age, but Wilma had remained lithe and fresh, while Freda looked dried-up and sharp-angled and sour—and her clothes always smelled of mothballs. Dulcie, watching the two women, did not expect what was coming.

“Get your cat, Wilma. You are to take it home with you tonight.”

“She's all right inside—she'll go out later through her cat door.”

“You will take it home with you. I don't want it here at night. There's too much possibility of damage. Animals have no place in a library. You are fortunate that, so far, I have allowed it to remain during the day.”

Wilma laid aside the books she was arranging and fixed Freda with a level look. “Dulcie is not a destructive cat. Her manners, as you should have observed, are impeccable.”

“No cat can be trusted. You have no way to know what it might do. You will take it home with you.”

Dulcie, peering from the shadows, dug her claws hard into the carpet—she'd like to tear it to shreds. Or tear Freda to shreds, flay her like a cornered rat. She imagined Freda as a hunting trophy, the woman's head mounted over the circulation desk like the deer head over Morrie's Bar.

Wilma picked up her purse. “Dulcie has a right to be here. She
is
the library cat. She was appointed by the mayor and she is of great value to us. Have you forgotten that her presence has doubled the children's book circulation?”

“That is such a ridiculous notion. The library is a center for sophisticated research tools, Ms. Getz. It is not a petting zoo.”

“This is a small village library, Freda. It is geared to patrons who want to spend a few pleasant hours.”

“Even if that were its purpose, what does that have to do with a
cat
?”

“Our patrons like having a little cat to pet and to talk to.” Wilma gave Freda a gentle smile. “You've seen the statistics. Dulcie has brought in patrons who never came to the library before, and who are now regulars.”

“Ms. Getz, the city hired me to run a library, not an animal shelter. There is absolutely no precedent for…”

“You know quite well there is precedent. Do you think the libraries that keep a cat are run by idiots? There are library cats all across the country, and every one of them is credited with large increases in circulation. Do you think the librarians in El Centro and
Hayward and Hood River, in Niagara Falls, Fort Worth, and in a dozen other states would bother to keep a library cat if the cat did not perform a valuable service?”

“Very likely those libraries have a mouse problem and were forced to keep a cat. You are truly paranoid about this foolishness. I would hope your reference work is of a more scholarly…”

Wilma folded her hands loosely in front of her, a gesture Dulcie knew well when Wilma longed to punch someone. “Why don't
you
do
your
research, Freda? Library cats date at least as far back as the eighteen-hundreds, not only here but in England and Italy. There have been nonfiction books published on the library cat, a videotape is now being produced, and at least one thesis has been written on the subject—to say nothing of the Library Cat Society, which is a
national
organization of librarians and library cat supporters.”

Beneath the reference desk, Dulcie smiled. Wilma hadn't spent thirty years putting down pushy federal parolees for nothing.

“Since Dulcie came,” Wilma reminded Freda, “our children's reading program has grown so popular we've had to start three new groups—because of Dulcie. She draws out the shy children, and when new children come in to pet her, very often they discover a brand-new love for books. And they adore having her with them during story hour, snuggling among the cushions.”

Dulcie wanted to cheer, to do a little cat-dance to thank Wilma—but as Freda turned away, the expression on the woman's face made Dulcie back deeper under the desk, an icy shiver passing over her.

If she had been an ordinary cat, Wilma would take her away for her own safety, because who knew what
Freda might do? How could an ordinary cat fathom the lengths Freda Brackett might go to, to get rid of her?

But Dulcie was not ordinary. She was quite aware of the woman's malice and, despite Wilma's worries, she knew how to keep out of Freda's way.

Freda, turning her back on Wilma, motioned her assistant to put out the lights. Bernine Sage hurried out from the book stacks, heading for the electrical switches behind the circulation desk, her smoothly coiled red hair gleaming in the overhead light, her slim black suit describing exactly Bernine's businesslike attitude. She was not a librarian but a computer expert and a book-keeper—a perfect choice as Freda's assistant, to bring the backward village institution into the twenty-first century. Bernine, during the exchange between Freda and Wilma, had stood in the shadows as alert as an armed guard ready to support her superior.

Bernine and Wilma had known each other for many years; Bernine was, as far as she could be, Wilma's friend. But friendship ended where her bread was buttered.

Dulcie's own relationship with Bernine was one of a fear far more complicated than her wariness of Freda Brackett. Bernine Sage had acquired her dislike of cats in an unusual way, and she knew too much about certain kinds of cats. If she got started on Celtic history and the ancient, speaking cats, and began spilling her theories to Freda and quoting mythology, she could set Ms. Brackett off in a frightening new direction. A real witch-hunt—cat hunt—focused on her; though she was neither witch nor witch's cat, Dulcie thought demurely.

But what she
was
could be no less terrifying to an unsympathetic and unimaginative human.

Now, as Bernine threw the switches for the overhead lights, the library rooms dimmed to a soft glow where a few desk lamps still burned, and the last patrons headed out. But Wilma glanced across the room to Dulcie, her message as clear as if she had spoken: She would not take Dulcie home—she would not give in to Freda. But her look implored Dulcie to go on out and let the woman cool down. Her gaze said clearly that she wouldn't sleep unless she knew Dulcie was safe.

Within the shadows, Dulcie blinked her eyes slowly, trying to look compliant, trying to ease her friend.

But she had no intention of leaving. Crouched on the carpet, her tail switching, she waited impatiently as Freda and Bernine, and then Wilma, moved toward the door. Bernine paused to throw the last switch, and the desk lamps went dark, casting the room into blackness. For an instant Dulcie was blind, but before the dead bolt slid home her night vision kicked in and the darkness turned transparent, the tables and chairs reemerged, and across the book-lined walls, the blowing shadows of the oaks swam and shivered.

BOOK: Cat in the Dark
8.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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