Rhys Bowen
Agatha and Anthony Winner

Short Stories

PLEASE WATCH YOUR STEP
or
The Crime Writer's Cat
By Rhys Bowen

Caroline had never thought of herself as a cat person, but when the large gray tabby appeared on her doorstep, looking miserable and bedraggled during a storm, it seemed only natural to take it in, dry it off, and offer it a saucer of milk. Once its coat had dried, the cat was revealed as an attractive beast with long, silky fur and the most interesting green eyes that regarded her with almost human intelligence. It appeared not the least bit shy or aggressive and allowed her to stroke it before settling on the rug in front of the fire.

Strand MagazineAs she watched the cat resting peacefully, she decided that it was exactly what she needed to complete her image. She was, after all, a crime writer. Crime writers were supposed to have cats. And she realized with a little thrill of pleasure that the timing could not have been better. The reporter from People Magazine was coming with photographer to do an interview with her at the end of the week. What better than a picture of the writer at her desk, her cat at her feet, or maybe even curled on a pillow beside her computer? Women readers would certainly go for that, she knew.

“What am I to call you?” she asked. 

The cat turned to her, lifting its large gray head and regarding her with its green eyes. The look was so withering that all thoughts of cute names were banished straight from her mind.

“Caroline McKenzie and cat,” she said and came to a decision. “I’ll call you Cat for now, or maybe Kat with a K, to make it different.”

The cat sighed, and lay down again. Caroline practiced a gracious smile. “Yes, I live alone here. Just me and my cat. A lonely life but rewarding. She could see the article now. She could picture women rushing out in droves to buy her new book. People Magazine no less. Success at last.

She grabbed a tablet and started jotting down witty answers to all possible questions. Of course I owe it all to Olivia. She was the one person who believed in me, who saw my potential. Dear Olivia. How I miss her. Her passing has left a gaping hole in the middle of my heart… no, too graphic an image. Has left a gnawing emptiness in my heart. A gaping emptiness? A gnawing something or other?

She put it aside. There was still plenty of time to work on it. Outside the storm swept in from the ocean, peppering the windows with rain and howling around the chimneys. It was the first time she had fully appreciated how isolated the house was. The storm suddenly felt menacing and she decided to go to bed. Snuggled under the covers she’d surely feel safe—well, safer. She looked down and was surprised to find Kat was no longer on the hearth rug.

When she went upstairs she was even more surprised to find it blissfully asleep on her own pillows. She removed it and found a spare quilt to make a bed on the floor beside her. Kat allowed itself to be repositioned without comment, but as soon as she climbed into bed and turned out the light, it jumped back onto the bed and settled against the small of her back. Its warmth and presence were so comforting with the storm still howling outside that she allowed it to stay.

The reporter from People Magazine came on Thursday afternoon. The weather was still blustery and unsettled and as she got out of her car a great gust of wind snatched at the large purse she was carrying and sent her flying toward Caroline, standing at the front door ready to receive her.

“Goodness, what a day,” she said breathlessly. She was middle-aged, with a pleasant, almost scholarly-looking round face and not at all what Caroline had expected. She had equated People Magazine with glamour and hip. “I’m Terri Furness. I take it you’re expecting me.” The woman extended a large hand.

“Indeed I am,” Caroline said. “Come on in. Beastly weather, isn’t it? I’ve made coffee but I can easily do tea instead.”

“Coffee would be lovely, thank you,” Terri replied and shook off her overcoat. “I hadn’t realized how remote you are here. It must feel quite lonely at times.”

“Oh, it would be, if I didn’t have my cat,” Caroline replied, smiling fondly at the gray tabby who had made an entrance exactly on cue.

“Isn’t she adorable,” the woman said and Caroline realized that she had never considered whether the cat was male or female. “What’s her name?”

“Kat with a K,” Caroline said as the animal went over to rub itself against Terri’s leg.

“Kat with a K!” Terri smiled. “I love it. You writers are so creative.” She followed Caroline and the coffee cups into the living room. A fire was burning brightly in the grate and the room looked warm and inviting. “Delightful room,” she said, still smiling. “Is this where you work, or do you have an office?”

“I have an office upstairs,” Caroline said. “Would you like to see it?” She led Terri up the staircase to an attic room, lined floor to ceiling with books. A desk looked out over the ocean. “Perfect,” the woman said. “Just how I imagined it. Tell me, did Olivia Whiting also work here, at this desk?”

“Yes, she did,” Caroline said. “It seemed only fitting that I should follow in her footsteps, as it were. Keeping her memory alive.”

She started as the cat leaped up onto the desk, scattering papers. “Get down, you awful creature.” She laughed as she lifted it to the ground. “Obviously wants to be the center of attention today. She probably thinks you’ve come to interview her, not me.”

They turned to go downstairs again. “Watch your step, please,” she said. “As you notice the stairs are rather steep and narrow, like a lot of these old New England houses. I wouldn’t want another accident.”

Terri paused at the top step and looked back at Caroline. “Oh dear. So this was where…”

Caroline nodded. “I found her,” she said. “I’d been out in the garden. I came in and there she was. I’ll never get that scene from my mind.”

They took the stairs slowly and cautiously, one hand on the banister, one on the wall, then went back into the living room. The cat trotted ahead and immediately settled itself on the rug. Terri took out a notebook and pen from the large purse. “I’m still the old fashioned type. Never could get used to recorders. Not much use with computers either.”

Caroline nodded with understanding as Terri took the cap off the pen. “Olivia had on ongoing feud with computers as well. She used to sit and shout at the screen sometimes.”

“You must miss Olivia terribly,” she said.

“Oh I do. Every day. It’s like a gnawing emptiness where my heart should be.”

Terri scribbled down the words. “So tell me how you first met.”

“At a writer’s conference—where else?” Caroline laughed again. “Olivia was on the faculty. I was a hopeful, unpublished writer. Olivia was assigned to give my manuscript a critique. She was so kind and insightful and we established a connection right there and then.”

“And did the manuscript sell?”

“It didn’t, but of course I now know why. We writers all have those first pitiful attempts shut away in a drawer somewhere, don’t we?”

“So you kept in touch with Miss Whiting?”

“We kept up an email correspondence. Then she had her fall and I volunteered to come here to look after her.”

“That was kind of you.” There was a hint of what could have been sarcasm in the words and Caroline looked up at the other woman’s face. But it seemed as serene and pleasant as ever.

“Not at all,” she said. “I needed a part time job. I loved the area and what could be more delightful than to spend my days taking care of my mentor?” She made it sound so natural when in fact it had been so perfectly orchestrated: reading about the fall in the newspaper, joining the home care agency and appearing on Olivia’s doorstep with new hair color and new name. “By the time Olivia recovered, she had grown so used to having a companion and secretary that she asked me to stay on, and of course I was overjoyed to comply. It was a wonderful relationship, something I’ll treasure for the rest of my days.”

“Her death was definitely ruled to be an accident, was it?” the woman asked suddenly.

Caroline’s coffee cup rattled on its saucer. “What do you mean by that?” she demanded.

“The first fall, I meant,” Terri said serenely. “The time she broke her hip. Was it judged to be an unfortunate accident or was there already an undiagnosed medical problem even then?”

“Ah.” Caroline paused to regroup. “Yes, I’m afraid she had dangerously low blood pressure. She was supposed to rise slowly from sitting or lying or she became dizzy and passed out. But Olivia wasn’t the type who did anything slowly, I’m afraid. She would jump up from her desk and go rushing downstairs when she saw the mailman coming. She was like a little child about getting mail. She must have blacked out on both occasions, and unfortunately the second time it wasn’t just her hip.” She turned away, her hand to her mouth. “You must excuse me. It’s still painful to talk about it. I feel responsible, you see. I was there to take care of her. I can’t shake off the feeling that I should have done something.”

Terri nodded sympathetically, then reached out to stroke the cat as it got up from the rug and came to rub against her. “Was the cat originally Olivia’s?”

“No, it arrived quite recently. Showed up one night in a storm, poor thing. I hadn’t the heart to turn her away and I must say I now welcome the companionship, although, as you know, cats can be willful.”

“Oh yes,” Terri said. She sipped her coffee in silence until Caroline said, “I presume you came here to talk about me, not my cat or Olivia.”

“Yes, of course.” Terri smiled. “But I always like to make my victims relax first before we get down to the nitty gritty.”

“I don’t think there’s much nitty gritty to get down to in my case,” Caroline said. “My story is quite straightforward. In fact I’ve led a horribly boring life. I’d be quite delighted if you’d spice it up for your readers. Invent me parents who abandoned me in the arctic, or a mafia connection by all means.”

Terri chuckled. “I think our readers will be quite taken with your Cinderella story. So your first real success, Tower of Storms, was actually Olivia’s book, was it?”

Caroline nodded. “The first half, anyway. Olivia died, leaving a half-finished manuscript. We had discussed how the story should end many times. She liked to use me as a sounding board, you see. So it suddenly came to me that I should finish it for her—as a tribute. I got her editor’s blessing and wrote the second half. It came to me easily, as a matter of fact, because I knew Olivia’s thought process pretty well by this time. I sent it off, the editor was delighted, and, as you know, it became an enormous best seller.”

“Was that actually your first book?”

“My first published work. That’s not the same thing for most writers, myself included. One learns ones craft through rejections. I also learned mine by living with Olivia.”

“And you’ve written two books since?”

“I have. On the basis of Tower of Storms, Olivia’s old editor gave me a very handsome contract, and I didn’t let her down. Both the books have sold phenomenally well.”

“They’re calling you the next P.D James, the next Olivia Whiting. That must be very satisfying, after your previous rejections.”

Caroline nodded. “But I’ll tell you one thing—I’d give it all back willingly, the fame, the money, everything, to have Olivia here and alive again. She was more than just a mystery writer.  She was an icon, the likes of which only come around once in a generation. And she was a wonderful human being too. The world is a poorer place without her.”

“I’d say you’d stepped into her shoes rather well,” Terri said. “So tell me about yourself, your childhood, when you started writing…” She looked up from her yellow pad. “I gather Caroline McKenzie isn’t your real name?”

“No, my real name is Dee Dee Hartman. Hardly a name for a serious crime writer, is it? I always hated it. My mother was the sort who fussed and spoiled me and tied ribbons in my hair. Adorable little Dee Dee.” She shuddered.

“Your father?”

“Was absent. Walked out when I was two. I was a lonely child and I invented wonderful fantasy worlds for myself. The writing came quite naturally.”

She talked on. Terri nodded occasionally. When she fell silent Terri said, “And what next? Can you tell us about the next blockbuster?”

Caroline flushed. “I’m afraid I can’t. I’m still in the throes, as it were. But it will be a kind of Tower of Storms Two. I’m bringing back the policeman.”

“And do you plan to go on living here, in Olivia’s old house?”

“I think so, for the time being,” Caroline said. “Olivia was kind enough to leave me the house in her will, and I feel her presence strongly when I write here.”

Terri rose to her feet. “I think that will do for now. It looks like there’s a lull between storms so I think I’d be wise to make a quick getaway. I’ll call you if more questions come up. And the photographer will probably be out tomorrow, so choose something stunning to wear and give Kat an extra brushing.” She looked around. “Where has she got to now? I should say goodbye to her too.”

They went back upstairs and found the cat lying in the bottom drawer of the desk.

“Would you look at that,” Terri said. “Aren’t cats amazing? They always find the most uncomfortable, impossible places to take naps. Mine likes to sleep in the Scrabble box lid every time we play.”

Caroline stared at the sleeping animal. She was sure the bottom drawer had been closed earlier. How could the cat have managed to open it? It didn’t stir as she accompanied the reporter downstairs and waved goodbye. As she closed the door again, she let out a huge sigh of relief. She had gotten through it and it had gone well. People Magazine here I come, she said. On my way to being a literary icon. She poured herself a glass of shiraz and when she carried it through to the living room, the cat was stretched out on the hearth rug.

By late afternoon the next wave of rain swept in from the ocean with the promise of a stormy night ahead. Caroline prowled the house, unable to settle. She had never heard the wind howl like that down the chimneys, sending out great billows of smoke from the fire. When the phone rang, her heart almost leaped from her chest.

“Hello?” She could hardly form the word.

“Caroline? Terri Furness here. Sorry to disturb you again, but I told you I’d call if any more questions occurred to me and a couple have.”

“Oh? I’d be happy to answer them.” Caroline tried to sound light. “Fire away.”

“I realized that I forgot to mention one thing this afternoon,” Terri said. “I’m an old friend of Olivia Whiting. We were college roommates, in fact. We kept in touch from time to time, and I interviewed her for People about five years ago. I remember asking her what she’d do if she ever dried up and got writer’s block. And she laughed, that wonderful deep laugh of hers, and said her publisher would only let her publish one book a year, but she wrote faster than that, so she had a couple of manuscripts tucked away in her bottom drawer, for a rainy day—or a dry day, as she put it. I just wondered if you’d ever come across them.”

“Manuscripts? I never heard of any manuscripts...”

“I’m sorry. I can hardly hear you,” Terri said. “The line is terrible. It must be the weather. Look, would it be all right if I drove out again this evening? I was planning to spend the night at the inn in Roehaven anyway so that I could accompany the photographer tomorrow. But now the photographer has called to say he’s not going to be able to make it, I’m afraid—he’s been sent off to cover storm damage—so I might as well take some candid shots myself.  If that’s all right with you,” she added.

“Fine. Fine with me,” Caroline said.

“Great. Then I’ll hop in the car and come right over. The rain seems to be easing here. See you in about half an hour then.”

Caroline put down the phone and stood staring at it, willing her frozen brain into action. Think, dammit. She started to pace. She knows. That’s why she came here, not because she wanted to interview me, but because she knows. Blood pounded through her head. She looked around wildly, as if planning a flight route. Call her back, tell her it isn’t convenient. Tell her you’ve just come up with a fabulous plot idea and she’d be disturbing your writing.

She picked up the phone but the line was dead. Relax, she told herself. Deep breaths. You have nothing to fear. They can’t prove anything. They did the autopsy. They noted the low blood pressure and the previous fall. Case closed.

Darkness fell quickly and she went around the house turning on every light as the wind picked up again in intensity. As she was about to enter her office and glanced at the desk another, more disturbing, thought entered her head. Those manuscripts, those ones in the bottom drawer—old friends confided in each other, didn’t they? Was it possible that Olivia had shown her friend the manuscripts and she had recognized the similarities?

Cold fear gripped at her. A public expose. Ridicule. Doomed forever in the literary marketplace. She couldn’t let that happen. She stared out of the window into the blackness of the night. “See you in half an hour,” the woman had said. She had less than half an hour to think, to plan. Another fall down the stairs would certainly arouse suspicion, and she’d already warned the woman to be cautious. Too bad she knew nothing about poisons. Only cyanide came to mind and she didn’t have any. 

A thought came to her: a car accident—slick roads, blustery winds—but how did one arrange a car accident? She could hardly hope for a chance to cut the brake cables or wreck the steering, even if she possessed the expertise to do so, which she didn’t.

Then she had a brilliant idea. There was a sharp bend where the road swung away from the coast. If she could remove the warning sign, that stand of fir trees would hide the actual bend in the road. With no warning the woman would not brake in time and would drive over the cliff, a good fifty feet drop. Caroline’s heart raced as she peered out of the upstairs window. No headlights were yet visible. She’d have to hurry but she could do it! She had to do it!

The house lights flickered. God, don’t say the power was going off! She’d better grab a flashlight before it was too late. She ran to the stairs. As she went to put her foot on the top step, the cat rose up with a fearsome yowl. Caroline screamed, fought to regain her balance, clutched at air and went tumbling down the stairs.

Terri gripped the steering wheel of her car, her face grim. Was she running a risk, going back to see the woman alone, on a night like this? Who was to say that she wasn’t dangerous, deranged even? She would have to tread carefully, not alarm her, but she had to get a feel for the truth. When she had noticed that cat, lying in the bottom drawer, it had awoken a memory of a conversation with Olivia. During that same conversation Olivia had mentioned a writer’s conference she had just attended.

“Absolutely hopeless, most of them. There was this awful little woman called Dee Dee who pestered me the whole time. She had written the most frightful drivel and she wanted me to say it was War and Peace.” And she had laughed, her deep, comfortable chuckle.

Lights were on in the house but nobody answered the front door. Puzzled but rather relieved Terri drove away again. Her subsequent phone calls went unanswered too and it was a week later before she found out why. When firefighters broke into the house, they found the body, lying at the foot of the stairs. There was no sign of a cat.

 

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