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Chapter 7

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Chapter Seven
-- by Deborah Moran --

A Deadly Game of Cat and Mouse
(or for the faint of heart, "I tawt I saw a puddy tat...I did, I did!"

A few seconds before David was about to have what would appear to be a head-on collision with an identical stranger, at Chateau Robie, Francie was experiencing a strange encounter of her own.

She replaced the receiver in the cradle of her princess-style telephone, quite purr-plexed at the conversation just concluded.  Using her 17th century Flemish nightstand for support, she sat back down on the bed, shaken, no longer sleepy.

The shrill telephone ring had interrupted a blissful dream--John gaily cavorting with his newborn child; Francie lazily lounging undereath the apple tree by the gazebo, a warm breeze playing a concerto on her skin.  Oh how happy they were!  John was just about to playfully toss his heir over his handsome black wavy hair when the ringing rudely intruded upon her nighttime reverie.

Brrrnnng.  Brrrnnng.  Brrrnnng.   Brrrnnng.

John did not pick up the telephone as was his usual practice when a nightime call came through the line.

Brrrnnng.  Brrrnnng.  Brrnnng.

Francie, awakened by the noxious, insistent sound of Ma Bell,  glanced at the Venetian clock sitting on the bureau, the sterling silver hands marking time at 10:11 p.m.  Only now did she realize that John was not slumbering next to her.  In fact, she quickly came to the conclusion that he had yet to retire for the evening, his side of the Queen
Elizabeth I canopy bed still perfectly made.  That discovered, why wasn't he picking up the telephone, Francie wondered.

Brrrnnng.  Brrrnnng.  Brrn--

"Hello."  Francie finally silenced the aural assault on its 12th ring.

"Is this the Robie residence?"  a male voice spoke.

"Yes.  Who is this, please?"

"Ma'am, this is Cal Icko's Car Park Service.  We are working the Museum ball tonight, and an Aston Martin registered to a 'John Robie' at this address is parked in one of our reserved spots.  It's blocking a car that we need to retrieve for one of the guests.  The keys were not left in the car and we can't locate Mr. Robie's whereabouts."


"Are you still there, Ma'am?"

Since John was safely ensconced in the house, Francie was struggling to reconcile how his usually garaged car was all the way on the other side of town by the Museum.  Her brain, Francie decided, was still asleep.

"Lady?   Hello?"

"Uh, yes.  I'm still here.  I'll see to it that the keys are brought to you right away.  Thank you."

Francie called out for John.  Silence.  She donned her Chanel robe and Halston feather slippers and padded down the hall, all the while calling out John's name.  Silence still.  Noticing the light shining out from under Jessie's bedroom door, Francie knocked.

"Come in.  Francie, I thought you went to sleep an hour ago?" Jessie said.

"Mother, have you seen my husband?  He doesn't answer when I call out, and I just had the strangest conversation."

Unnerved by her earlier encounter in the study with the said missing husband, Jessie stalled for time:  "If he's not answering, how could you have had a strange conversation?"

"Not with John, Mother.  On the telephone."

"I didn't hear the phone ring.  I wonder if there is something wrong with my hearing, because lately--"

"Mother," Francie interrupted.  "John?  Remember?  His car is involved in some sort of blockade downtown, and I can't find him."

Jessie clearly remembered John and his recent message to her: "Listen, Love.  Let's not let a little larceny louse up Francie's or your lavish lifestyle, shall we?"  Although Jessie was a little rough around the edges, she had always played straight.  But, when it came to her daughter's happiness, well that and her own standard of living, the law was nothing but a three letter word.  She thought quickly.

"He's not here," Jessie stated matter-of-factly.  "He went out."

"Out?  But the gardener has the night off, and he told me he couldn't leave the grapes unattended.  Where did he go?"

Jessie lied smoother than the Persian rug covering the Brazilian walnut parquet floor throughout the house:  "I saw him leave a little spell ago,"  Jessie drawled.  Her Oklahoma accent always became more pronounced when she exaggerated or prevaricated.

"Where did he go?  And don't lie to me, Jessie.  I reckon I ken always tell when ya lie, Momma,"  Francie mocked Jessie's hillbilly twang.

"Oh, Francine.  Stop being so suspicious.  He went to fetch me a bottle of bourbon.  This Cal-eee-for-nie-ay moonshine you and John peddle don't do the trick for what's ailin' this ol' country gal."  Jessie rubbed a phantom rheumatic elbow for added effect.

"Mother, John's car is parked outside the Academy of Sciences' Natural History Museum on Lombard Street.   Are you telling me he decided to travel 30 minutes downtown at night to 'fetch' you a drink rather than simply 'mozy' downstairs 10 steps to the liquor cabinet in the study?"

"Daughter, why must you be so analytical?" Jessie said with exasperation.

"Mother, why must you be so conspiratorial?  Francie volleyed back.  "What are you up to?"

A paws punctuated the air.

"Alright.  If you must ruin the moment for him, I'll tell you.  But, John' s gonna be mighty mad at me.  John went to that bird ball tonight to track down a stork for you.  Thought he'd tie a yellow bow 'round it's neck and leave it in the garden room to surprise the expectant mother in the morn'.   Darn romantic, if you ask me."  As she said this, Jessie instinctively flinched at the preposterous fable she had just cooked up.  If Francie fell for this glop of malarkey, there was no doubt she had been switched at birth--no way a Stevens would gulp this one down, Jessie fathomed.

Another paws.

Francie considered her options and made a calculated decision.  She couldn't help but balk at the lame story she had just heard, especially after the row she and John had had about the gardener and the Museum tickets, but swallowing Jessie's version was far better than believing her jealous, pregnant imagination which had her gorgeous, sexy, desirable husband at that very moment entwined in the arms of a young, bodacious debutante at her fashionable downtown penthouse.

Grabbing Jessie's hand, Francie issued an order to her Mother:  "Mother, you're coming with me.  We're going to bail out the car, go to the Ball and surprise John.  I know Bruce Leeson, the Curator.  I'm sure I can sweet talk him into letting us in without tickets.  I'm a Stevens girl, after all."

Realizing she was beat, Jessie again dallied, buying a fraction of a minute extra:  "Let me change, dear.  Cinderella may have gone to the ball wearing a dress sewn by mice, but I'm not going in my nightgown, even if it was woven by silk worms."

"Hurry, Mother.  We're going to find John, not dance the night away.  No one will care what you are wearing."

"Don't rub it in,"  Jessie mumbled to herself as she ventured into her boundaryless closet.

Ten minutes later, the two were dressed and quite presentable.

"To the Museum."  Francie turned over the engine of her car.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world," Jessie mused.  "I love a good catfight."

The roar of the horses under the hood drowned out clarity, so Francie hadn't caught Jessie's last remark.  "What was that, Mother?"

"I said 'I need a good catnap.'" Jessie feigned a yawn as they drove out beyond the iron gates, the sprinklers misting the grapes in the south vineyard for the final time of the evening.

As the Jaguar purred down the highway, Sy "Sleaze" Meeze was still berating himself for calling his boss about the diamond discovery.   Now Huxley would know he was breaking protocol and would forever watch him like a hawk. But, there was simply no way Sy was going to share the Pawlitzer Prize Medal and the $25 million booty that went with being a world-class scientific genius.    No way.   Thinking diabolically, a plan had come to Sy.

After he hung up with David, he posted a note outside Room 53 directed to his boss.  He "packaged" the Smilodon back in its crate and placed the crate on a handcart left in the archival research wing.  Taking the service elevator,  and with much adrenalin and even more exertion, Sy transported, or more technically, catnapped, the Smilodon up eight levels to the Newman Taxidermy Room on the roof.  Once there, he further secured the Smilodon in the crate with the special packing foam utilized for international shipping of museum specimens.  It was Sy's plan to hoist the crate over the roof and down the side of the building using the window washing rigging that was "parked" on the west side of the roof ledge..   Once on firm ground, he'd place the crate in one of the many unlocked, Academy vans left unattended by the retrieval crew.  Lucky for Sy,  a childhood friend now serving time at Sing Sing had taught him how to hot wire a Chevy.

By the time Huxley had cooled his heels to polar temperatures awaiting Sy's return to Room 53,  Sy will already have ferreted the fossilized cat to his small apartment near the East Pier.  He'd work tirelessy through the night if that's what it took to figure out feline science's greatest mystery.  He'd call the Medal panel in the morning, and the Prize would be his alone.  For extra insurance, he pocketed the diamond he'd discovered in the Smilodon.  After all, finders keepers, as the childhood taunt goes.  He wasn't much of a gem scholar, but this one looked flawless enough to at least get him a comfortable villa in Tunisia with a few servants and a sailboat.  He'd already selected the name:  "Bye ology."

Mostly from fatigue, but also out of caution, Sy slowly opened the steel door of the Newman Room out, furtively looking in all directions.  The roof was clear.  With agonizing effort, Sy began to execute his plan.  He walked around to the handle of the pullcart, facing the crate, and began to pull the flatbed dolly on which the heavy specimen crate lay towards the edge of the west facade.  Inch by inch, bit by bit.  And inch by inch and bit by bit his cargo pressed ever so closer to its destination. Facing backwards as he was, Sy could not see that a fatal cat-astrophe loomed inches ahead.

Tug. Breathe.  Tug.  Breathe.  So his mantra went.  Breathe.  Tug again.  Then it happened.  Sy tripped over the lip of the open ventilation screen Stray had only hours ago loosened for John's uninvited entrance into the Museum.  Losing his balance, Sy fell backwards headfirst down the duct, arms and legs twisting,  suffereing a crushing blow to the skull as he ping ponged off the steel piping time and again.  Sy landed with a thud, laying most definitely dead at the T-duct joint between levels 7 and 8.  Sy Meeze was now Sy onara, so to speak. The force of the fall jerked the handcart forward, and as the wheels of the cart banked against that same lip of ventilation grate, the crate with Smilodon securely wedged inside, like Jill after Jack, tumbled down into the tunnel, squishing Sy like an overripe  tomato in a freshly sharpened food processor.  To add insult to deadly injury, the ventilation screen flipped over and landed right on top of the open duct.  A cursory observation of the roof area would reveal nothing amiss, except the presence of a lonely hand cart from the basement level.

Although Sy and the crate made a thundering ruckus hurtling through the ventilation system, the cacophony of music, magpie and and mayhem from the Ball in the nether regions of the Museum drowned out the possibility of anyone hearing the tragedy on the roof.  And, in summer or winter, while it might take only a few days before Sy's remains were found (a fetid odor wafting through the walls when the heat or air conditioning was powered up would prompt an investigation)  since it was tepid spring time, Sy could lay like rotting sausage for months before the grisly carnage was discovered.  Luckily for him (at least if he were still alive it would be considered a stroke of luck), David would most certainly begin to fret about the whereabouts of his Smilodon within a few hours.  

While rigor mortis was giving Sy a nasty case of the stiffles, David was rounding the corner on level B-4, unaware of the deadly mess 7 floors above him.  He had exited the taxi so quickly (concern about the Smilodon fueling his haste as was the overwhelming need to escape the smell of the cabbie),  he missed observing Yellow Cab 118 pull around to the Museum's front entrance, turning off its "vacant" sign in the process.  He also failed to note that the two cabs that seemed to have been following him had indeed pulled around to the "Employees Only" driveway moments behind him.

David's thoughts were indeed worried ones, although any female would surely question his sanity.  "Diamonds," he practically spat the word out.  "Engagement necklace.  Whoever heard of such a thing?" He patted his back pocket with disdain at the same time he rued the vile jewel his assistant had discovered lodged in the Smilodon.  "Carats are for rabbits and horses," he muttered.  "Not for cats and most definitely not for one particular Catz."

His heavy footsteps echoed off the gray cinderblock walls and industrial tile floor.  John and Stray had been alerted to David's approach, compliments of his loafers, just seconds before he made his appearance.  Room 50.  Room 51.  Room 52.  As Stray and the Cat ducked into an unlocked utility closet, David narrowly skirted a reunion with his heretofore unknown twin brother and his wannabe paramour's "ex" by only inches.

Rubbing his eyes and shaking his head as if to clear cobwebs, David considered this apparent out of body experience.  "I swear I just saw myself ducking into that utility closet," David whispered to himself as he cinched his eyebrows together in puzzlement.  "But how could I be there if I'm here?"  Not coming up with any immediate scientific answer to his query, and then recalling the events of the evening, David hypothesized that the "sighting" was nothing more than a hallucination borne of hunger and, he regrettably admitted, sexual frustration. 

Room 53.  He read Sy's scribble tacked to the door:  "Will be back shortly.  Wait here for the cat."  Impatient, he tried the knob.  Locked.  He searched his pockets only to remember that he hadn't grabbed the specimen exam room key, leaving the Hotel in such a blaze of speed as he did.  He also failed to bring along the pass code.  Annoyed, David had no choice but to wait for Meeze to return.   His annoyance, however, was in direct competition to another feeling.  Hunger.

Food.  All that thinking about "ducking" around made him long for his Chinese take away.  Since he was passing time, David decided to head upstairs to the Ball to forage for dinner.

Whir.  Spclack.  They waited for the elevator doors to completely shut before John and Stray left the safety of the utility closet.  Outside Room
53, Stray easily entered the pass code and then inserted the key to manually unlock the room.  One twist of the wrist and John was about to score "hot ice."  Stray took up his lookout post by the elevators, mop and industrial bucket in hand to distract attention.  Out of force of habit, he began to swab the floor to pass time.

Inside Room 53 and inches from fulfilling his financial destiny, John's heart beat wildly.  His breath shallow.  His palms sweaty.  (my libido rising!)  John waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark.  He crept over to the specimen crypt door, recalled the tumbler sequence Stray had deciphered two days before, and with agile fingers a fetal heart surgeon would envy,   John deftly turned the lock, rivulets of sweat running down his back and forehead.  36.  Click.  24.  Click.  36.  Click.

The lock gave way without a struggle, and John slowly opened the door to the storage unit.  He felt around. Rubbed his eyes.  Felt again.  Panic flooded his senses.  The cat box was empty!   He must have made a mistake.  He felt again.  Nothing.  The crate, the fossilized animal and the diamond were all AWOL.  The cat and "Hope"  were utterly gone.   Consequently, this Cat and his hope had all but vanished as well.  John was certain the ringing in his ears was the requiem for his ninth life sounding its final, sad notes. 

With a chime, the elevator on B-4 opened, and much to Stray's utter horror and amazement, there stood facing him, with fangs bared, Domi Catz, mother of his child, former wife, and his greatest nemesis.

"Well, well.  Look what zee cat dragged in, spit on, and dragged out again,"  Domi hissed at the stunned and silent Stray.

Upstairs at the Ball, David had already devoured three platefuls of wings and two helpings of Cornish game hen.  Only when he came up
for a breath of air did he fully take in the dazzling spectacle unfolded before him.  The Museum was ablaze with brilliant colors, smells and sights.  Trumpets massaging a Glenn Miller tune sounded in the background, while bejeweled society doyennes and their fat cat husbands gorged, drank and romped to excess.  Susan would have loved this, David reminisced sadly.  He, on the other hand, thought it all rather silly.

As he made his way through the crowd, an exotic beauty with long black hair and overly evolved mammary glands was commanding the considerable attention of quite a few men, each tripping all over their tuxedo tails it seemed to curry her favor, David noted.  Thus, he was thoroughly shocked when she immediately abandoned the gaggle of admirers and slinked right up to him.  "Boss," she whispered., "aren't you supposed to be downstairs with "S" now?"

"Yes, yes I am," David stuttered,  surprised that she knew about his unplanned trip to the Museum tonight.  "Do you know about the diamond, too?"

"Of course!  By my clock, you should be in the cat by now.  Has the plan changed?"  she asked, rather cagily to David's way of thinking.

"There's been a slight delay so I thought I'd grab a bite to eat and wet my whistle, so to speak."

Puh Si Willow gave David a look of reproach.  "What about the 'ice?"

"Oh, no, my dear.  I plan on drinking champagne and when one has champagne, one doesn't need any ice," David instructed the very puzzled Willow.  Before John's decoy could unravel the mystery, the Ambassador of Spain happened upon the pair (not David and Willow, mind you, but Willow's "assets"), and whirled her onto the dance floor.  Last David saw her, she was tangoing towards the fountain in the foyer, so locked in his Excellency's tight embrace she would have button imprints from his coat on her front for months to come.    

David lost track of time as he wandered through the tables and displays.  He purposely avoided the Tunnel of Love, and narrowly missed an intestinal discharge from a carrier pigeon on high. He was heading to talk to an ornithologist about a recent report he'd read regarding a cat's natural preference for robin over blue jay when he was accidently jostled by Professor Byrd Brain, the clairvoyant.  The Professor apologized profusely, offering David a complimentary palm reading.  Politely rejecting prognostication as quackery, David was just about to back away, when the Professor stared intently into David's eyes, grabbed his shoulders, and with electricity in his voice pronounced:

Once two peas in a pod
fate a separation did weave
split pea soup up until now
soon to be thick as thieves.

David regarded the Professor with curiosity.  "Hmmm?  I don't like pea soup, and I never associate with criminals," David indignantly declared.  The Professor nodded his head, repeated his message and wandered over to another guest leaving David to figure out his nonsensical riddle. 

"I'm a man of science.  I deal in tangibles, reality," David thought to himself.  "That which one can touch and measure," he finished his train of thought.  "And speaking of measurements, where is one of those lovely cocktail waitresses I've seen passing champagne around?" David said to no one in particular, but quite amused at his own play on words.

The Professor's future forgotten, David headed in the direction of a nearby tray of the bubbly and, happily, the dessert table.

A chocolate petit four in the shape of a swan caught his attention, and just as he reached for the treat, a woman's hand clutched his arm.  He turned around.

"I didn't expect to see you here.  Last Wednesday at tea, Francie said you two would be vacationing on the Riveria this week."  Tabitha "Tabby" Kibbles, a blue blood to the core and probably would be so even after any number of transfusions, gave a peck on each cheek, lingering just a little bit longer than etiquette required or approved.

David regarded her with confusion, and searched his brain for any recollection of their previous introduction.  His internal rolodex came up a blank.  "Madam, do we know each other?"

"Darling, don't be coy with me," Tabby lightly scolded.

"I'm not being koi.  Although I had an Uncle Clarence who thought he was a Beyda fish, you know one of those Japanese fighting fish.  He would put his lips together--"

Tabby interrupted.  "You gorgeous man,  why are you acting so mysterious with me?  Where is Francie?"

"Somewhere between Germanie and Italie!" David chuckled.

"You are up to something!" Tabby provocatively ran her finger down David's torso from his neck to his navel. "But, your secret is safe with me."  She ended her tracing just above his belt buckle.  "I think it's divine you are having an affair. I am just sorry it's not with me.  Who's the lucky lady you are stepping out with?"

Before David could begin to explain who he was, Tabby, pathological social climber that she was, had already turned away to head off the Mayor by the canapés table.

"Either I'm not quite myself today, or there's a full moon tonight,"  David thought to himself, shaken by yet another bizarre encounter with a female.  But still and always hungry, David again attempted to snatch a chocolate swan, when once again he felt unfamiliar hands, this time on his hips.

"My sweet lover," David heard in his ear, a voluptuous body pressed against his back which caused rapid fluctuation in his vital signs.   (David may have been hesitant around women, but he certainly wasn't dead.)  "You have been a naughty alley cat, sneaking out on me in the night.  I shall have to again punish you,"  Francie said erotically, as she playfully spanked the sumptuous backside of her prey.

Feeling an uncharacteristic bulge in his pants, (I'm not going there...) Francie reached down into the left rear pocket of David's slacks and extracted a handkerchief shrouding a shiny object.  She unwrapped the cloth and thereby exposed a diamond necklace.  Her wedding diamond necklace to be exact.

Twirling David around, she was just about to set eyes on him and lay into him when a scream pierced the revelry.

"A leopard.  There's a leopard on the loose!"  trilled Jessie at the top of her lungs.  David forgotten, Francie bolted in the direction of
that unmistakable voice.

Baby playfully trotted into the Ball; Allie, Gogarty and Aunt Elizabeth footsteps behind.

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