Short Story from Quiet Fury: An Anthology of Suspense
Twenty-seven cats roamed freely through Marietta’s home. Two had only three legs, one was missing an ear, and another had a jagged scar where one green eye had been. All twenty-seven were in good health and well taken care of. Marietta loved her cats. She despised people.
Ralph hopped up on the window seat and meowed a greeting. Marietta ran a slim hand over his furry head. “Damn neighbors are at it again,” she said. “I’ve never bothered one of them. Not one. I mind my own business and would expect the same in return. But it seems they have nothing better to do with their time than to harass me.”
She watched the two officers amble up the driveway. A man and a woman, both with grim expressions. She recognized the woman. Officer Sanborn or Sanford. San-something. She’d been here a few days ago.
The officers spotted her through the glass and the woman gave a slight nod in greeting. Marietta turned away from the window.
At the sound of the doorbell, five of the cats scurried away. Some were shy. Most didn’t like people any more than she did. She, of course, was the exception in their lives. She loved them, provided for them and allowed them to be the free-spirited beings they were meant to be. They, in turn, gave her that same love and respect. That was a lot more than she could say for the way other humans treated her.
The doorbell sounded again, a quick burst meant to remind her that they were out there waiting. Marietta gave Ralph a scratch behind the ear. “Despite this being my home,” she said, “it appears that I am being forced to let these people in.” She stood, adding, “Believe me, I don’t like it any more than you do.”
Pulling the door open a crack, Marietta eyed the officers. “Yes?”
“Hello, Ms. O’Delle,” the tall male said. “May we come in for a moment? We need to speak to you.”
“What if I say no?”
The officers stood there looking dumbfounded, like they’d never been denied entrance into someone’s home before. After all, they did ask nicely. Not to mention that they had those shiny badges that granted them immediate entrance into all places, from tiny trailer homes to any one of those God-awful McMansions. Marietta sighed and swung the door open. “You may as well come in and tell me who’s complaining this time.”
The officers stepped inside. Marietta waved toward a tan couch where two cats lay cleaning themselves; one slept soundly, and another stared with wide eyes, ready to pounce on the first human who came too close. “You want to sit?” she asked.
The male officer couldn’t seem to find his words. The female, Officer San-something, shook her head. “Ms. O’Delle,” she said, “I’m Deputy Sanfeld. We met the other day.”
The way she said ‘we met’ made it sound as if they’d run into each other at a social function. Marietta rolled her eyes. “Yes,” she said. “I remember you Officer Sanfeld.”
“What’s the difference?”
“We work for the county. Officers work for the city.”
Marietta didn’t see why they needed both officers and deputies in one little city but she wasn’t about to question that. She wanted these officers – deputies – to speak their minds and be on their way. “Fine. Deputy Sanfeld. What is it you want today?”
“This is Deputy Doring,” Sanfeld said, indicating her partner. “We’re here to follow up on a complaint.”
“Another one? Or the same one from last week?”
Deputy Doring shifted his gaze from the cats on the couch to Marietta. He didn’t manage to hide his disgust. “Your neighbors claim that you have dozens of cats,” he said.
Doring’s jaw worked in silence, like she’d caught him off guard. “You admit that?”
Marietta looked to Deputy Sanfeld. “Didn’t we have this same talk once already?”
Deputy Sanfeld offered a smile. “Ms. O’Delle, your neighbors are concerned for your safety and your health.”
“Poppycock! Those people don’t care one iota about me. Not one of them could even tell you my first name. They simply have nothing better to do with their time but stick their noses into other people’s business.”
Deputy Doring shifted his weight, leaning into Marietta with a stern expression. “You’re breaking several county and city regulations,” he said. “Not to mention health codes.”
Marietta was not impressed with Deputy DoRight’s attempt to intimidate. “Ah, yes, rules and regulations. My law-abiding neighbors are only doing what’s best by reporting me. Is that what you’re saying?”
“Ms. O’Delle,” Deputy San-something said, “we don’t want to involve the health department but we have to follow the law. If you -“
“The law. We’ve got murderers, rapists, child molesters and thieves running loose in this city and you two are here with me because I have too many cats. This is our tax dollars at work. This is our city’s way of fighting crime. Do I have that right?”
“Please, Ms. -“
“And my do-gooder neighbors, they call you because they’re concerned for my safety, you say. They’re worried about upholding the law, you tell me. Yet, Bill Thompson across the street is really Bill Lattimer. He’s been running from his ex-wife for the past ten years because he doesn’t want to pay child support for the four children he left her with. And Sue Birch next door is addicted to prescription drugs that her doctor won’t give her enough of. She buys Klonopin and Vicodin from Ross Engleton, the teenage boy diagonally across.”
“Have you witnessed any of these drug transactions?” Deputy San-something asked.
Deputy DoRight stood ramrod straight, like someone had replaced his spine with a steel pole. “Ms. O’Delle, with all due respect, I’m inclined to believe that you’re using these accusations as a way to distract us from our purpose here.”
Marietta offered her best you’re an idiot smile. “Deputy DoRight, with all due respect, your inclinations are about as bad as your breath.”
“It’s Doring. And that’s enough of this nonsense. We -“
Deputy San-something held a hand up to quiet DoRight. “Ms. O’Delle, that’s a serious accusation you’ve made.”
“Which accusation? The one about DoRight’s breath, the one about the deadbeat across the street or the one about Susie the prissy addict?”
“Umm… the drug accusation, ma’am.”
“Of course it’s serious,” Marietta said. “A whole lot more serious than how many cats I have in my own home. Healthy cats, I might add. All of them have had their shots and are spayed or neutered. Why doesn’t anyone complain about the Crenshires down the street? They let their big tom cat run wild and he hasn’t been neutered. Do you have any idea how many kittens that one horny male creates each year?”
DoRight turned a funny shade of pink. San-something said, “Back to the drugs, Ms. O’Delle. How do you know that Mrs. Birch buys pills from Ross Engleton?”
“I see things and I hear things around here all the time. As I told you, my neighbors don’t care a lick about me. Heck, they don’t even see me. I could be dead in the middle of the street and they’d step past me without a glance. I’m like the invisible woman around here. All they see is my cats in the windows and they act like this is a major crime scene.”
“What have you seen and heard?” San-something asked.
Marietta told the deputies about conversations she’d overheard while out in her backyard and things she’d glimpsed through the knotholes in the aging fence. She gave them plenty of detail, while Deputy DoRight shifted his weight from one foot to the other and scowled. Finally, DoRight interrupted and asked, “Why haven’t you reported any of this?”
“Because, unlike my neighbors, I like to mind my own business. I figured she wasn’t hurting anyone but herself.”
DoRight suddenly had the expression of a person who’d been constipated for days. He started to say something but Deputy San-something cut him off. “We appreciate you giving us this information,” she said. “We’ll look into it immediately.”
Marietta shrugged. “Makes no difference to me one way or the other.”
Deputy DoRight’s scowl deepened. “You’re still required to get rid of the cats, Ms. O’Delle.”
“Get rid of?” Marietta snapped back.
Deputy San-something shot a furious glance at DoRight. “I apologize for his insensitive remark. However, you will need to find homes for the cats, Ms. O’Delle. You’re only allowed to have three living with you.”
“But I could have a dozen human kids if I wanted?”
“Well, yes. Local government doesn’t regulate the number of children allowed.”
“Ain’t that something? You can crowd as many little humans into a home as you like. You can feed them nothing but sugary cereal and let them play violent video games all day long. You can ask the state for money because you can’t afford them all. And no one calls the police; no one says the parents have to get rid of all but three of their kids. Yet, I’m here minding my own business, using my own money to take good care of my cats, all of which are rescues, I might add, and my neighbors and the police seem to think I’m committing a major crime here.”
“I’m sorry,” Deputy San-something said. “We don’t make the laws, ma’am.”
“Right. You only enforce them.”
The deputies made their way to the front door. Deputy DoRight held his scowl firmly in place. “We will be back in three days to check on your situation, Ms. O’Delle. If the cats haven’t been removed, we’ll be forced to involve the health department.”
“We’ll be in touch about the drug situation, as well, Ms. O’Delle,” Deputy San-something said. “A detective might need to ask you some questions.”
Marietta waved them away. “I will not answer any questions or help the police at all if I’m being forced to find new homes for my cats.”
San-something started to object but Marietta would not have it. “I stand firm on that,” she said. “You people are the police. You figure it out on your own.”
Marietta hid her smirk until both deputies were on the other side of her closed door. Ralph hopped off the window seat and rubbed against her leg. She scooped him up and kissed the top of his head. Her amusement at irritating the two deputies quickly fell away. She sighed and told the cats, “Sorry kids. Looks like we’re being forced to move once again.” Simon slinked over and rubbed against her. She squatted down and scratched behind his ear as he purred. “I know,” she said. “I was hoping we’d be able to spend the remainder of our time together in this house. I really like this one.”
Allowing herself to dwell on the issue would only depress her further. She would not let anyone take her cats away. That meant moving to another house, in another town, yet again. This time she’d try to find something more isolated, out of view of the prying eyes of nosey neighbors.
She made herself a cup of tea and took it out to the sun porch, along with a toasted bagel and a package of cat treats. After breakfast, she’d go to the real estate agent’s office and have them list her home for sale. They could handle it all while she found her next home. Then she’d stop by the grocery store and stock up on empty boxes before coming home to pack. She didn’t have a lot of time but, thankfully, she also didn’t have a lot of possessions.
The mid-morning quiet was broken by the booming voice of the man in the home behind hers. His vulgar words, directed at his wife, were interspersed with slamming doors and shattering glass. Most of the cats scattered into the house. Ralph huddled beneath the glass-topped table, visibly trembling. Marietta reached down and tried to soothe him as the noise raged behind her. She’d called the police countless times over the past year, reporting the violence and her fears. Usually, by the time they showed up, the fight was over. Once, the last time she’d called, the man had been arrested. The police had broken their promise and told her neighbors that she’d been the one to call. That evening, when the man was released from jail, he’d paid her a visit and calmly told her, in gory detail, exactly what would happen to her precious cats if she were to call the police ever again. Of course, she wouldn’t risk another call – not that the dozen previous times had done a bit of good anyway.
The woman screamed what sounded like, “Please, no!” A sound like wood shattering was followed by a gunshot. Marietta recoiled in shock. She grabbed Ralph and ran inside, locking all her doors before cowering in a corner of the living room.
Fifteen minutes passed. Twenty. No sound followed. No screams. Nothing.
Then sirens and loud voices.
Marietta calmed her cats and they, in turn, calmed her. “You’re safe now,” she said to the cats. And maybe to herself.
She had to get started packing. She had lots to do in less than three days.
Just as she picked up her purse and car keys, her doorbell rang. For a moment, she stood motionless, torn between ducking for cover and peeking out to see who was there. Finally, she gathered her wits and peered through the peephole. Deputies San-something and DoRight stood on her stoop once again. She opened the door an inch and said, “I’m on my way out and you said I have three days.”
“We’re not here about your cats, ma’am,” Deputy San-something said.
“Can we come inside?”
Marietta let them in. While she knew what they were going to say, had been expecting it for months, her heart still broke at the news. Cathy Jones, the woman who lived in the house behind her, had been shot dead.
“Did you hear anything?” Deputy DoRight asked. “Arguing? Shouting?”
“Her husband killed her.”
“We believe so.”
“You believe so? Of course he killed her! He’s been threatening to for as long as I’ve lived here!”
The deputies tried to calm Marietta but she waved them away. The police had been wasting time with her, answering complaints made by her two-faced neighbors because she dared have twenty-seven cats, when all around her the world crumbled. People lied, deceived, became drug addicts and murdered their wives. Lopsided laws allowed that man to beat his wife because he kept his blinds closed but she couldn’t have twenty-seven cats because she let in the light.
“Ms. O’Delle,” Deputy San-something said, “we know that you’re upset but we need your help. Can you tell us what you heard?”
Marietta thought of the big man and his vicious threats to her cats. She thought about how easy it would be for him to be released from jail to walk freely in the world, while her cats would be hauled away and killed by the city for the crime of being wrenched from a loving home. She didn’t understand the lopsided logic of this world she lived in.
She shook her head. “I can’t help you.”
“Ms. O’Delle -“
“No. I realize that you people do not make the laws but you are an accomplice to their absurdity. Now, if you don’t mind, I have only three days to make arrangements to keep my cats safe and I must get started.”
The deputy duo stood with their mouths slightly open. Marietta shooed them toward the door. “I wish you luck with your laws and the lies people tell. But I will not be participating.”
After the deputies left, Marietta reached down to pet Daisy. The cat had only three legs. Her right rear leg had been mangled and had to be amputated. She’d been tortured by a couple of teenagers who’d been high on something and found a sick sort of amusement in doing unspeakable things to a helpless kitten. She’d been left to die, strung from a clothesline by that right rear leg.
Marietta had rescued Daisy. She’d rescued them all. And they had rescued her. Before the cats, she’d been a lonely woman. She’d never been able to have children. Her husband of eleven years had left her for a younger woman who could and did have his children. She’d developed chronic health problems due to a poorly developed immune system and her friends had no patience for her limitations. Only her cats stood by her. Only her cats loved her unconditionally. She could not, would not, trade their lives for the convenience of being accepted by uncaring humans.
Outside, the lights from police cars flickered through the air. Men and women in uniform spread out in the yard behind her. Inside, Marietta and her cats comforted one another.