“It would have been the same as suicide,” Drogan said. “In her mind she was still a wealthy woman, perfectly capable of packing up that cat and going to New York or London or even Monte Carlo with it. In fact she was the last of a great family, living on a pittance as a result of a number of bad investments in the sixties. She lived on the second floor here in a specially controlled, superhumidified room. The woman was seventy, Mr. Halston. She was a heavy smoker until the last two years of her life, and the emphysema was very bad. I wanted her here, and if the cat had to stay…”
Halston nodded and then glanced meaningfully at his watch.
“Near the end of June, she died in the night. The doctor seemed to take it as a matter of course…just came and wrote out the death certificate and that was the end of it. But the cat was in the room. Gage told me.”
“We all have to go sometime, man,” Halston said.
“Of course. That’s what the doctor said. But I knew. I remembered.
Cats like to get babies and old people when they’re asleep. And steal their breath.”
“An old wives’ tale.”
“Based on fact, like most so-called old wives’ tales,” Drogan replied.
“Cats like to knead soft things with their paws, you see. A pillow, a thick shag rug…or a blanket. A crib blanket or an old person’s blanket.
The extra weight on a person who’s weak to start with…”
Drogan trailed off, and Halston thought about it. Carolyn Broadmoor asleep in her bedroom, the breath rasping in and out of her damaged lungs, the sound nearly lost in the whisper of special humidifiers and air conditioners. The cat with the queer black-and-white markings leaps silently onto her spinster’s bed and stares at her old and wrinkle-grooved face with those lambent, black-and- green eyes. It creeps onto her thin chest and settles its weight there, purring…and the breathing slows…
slows…and the cat purrs as the old woman slowly smothers beneath its 61
weight on her chest. He was not an imaginative man, but Halston shivered a little.
“Drogan,” he said, continuing to stroke the purring cat. “Why don’t you just have it put away? A vet would give it the gas for twenty dollars.”
Drogan said, “The funeral was on the first day of July, I had Carolyn buried in our cemetery plot next to my sister. The way she would have wanted it. On July third I called Gage to this room and handed him a wicker basket…a picnic hamper sort of thing. Do you know what I mean?”
“I told him to put the cat in it and take it to a vet in Milford and have it put to sleep. He said, ‘Yes, sir,’ took the basket, and went out. Very like him. I never saw him alive again. There was an accident on the turnpike.
The Lincoln was driven into a bridge abutment at better than sixty miles an hour. Dick Gage was killed instantly. When they found him there were scratches on his face.”
Halston was silent as the picture of how it might have been formed in his brain again. No sound in the room but the peaceful crackle of the fire and the peaceful purr of the cat in his lap. He and the cat together before the fire would make a good illustration for that Edgar Guest poem, the one that goes: “The cat on my lap, the hearth’s good fire/…A happy man, should you enquire.” Dick Gage moving the Lincoln down the turnpike toward Milford, beating the speed limit by maybe five miles an hour.
The wicker basket beside him – a picnic hamper sort of thing. The chauffeur is watching traffic, maybe he’s passing a big cab-over Jimmy and he doesn’t notice the peculiar black-on-one-side, white-on-the-other face that pokes out of one side of the basket. Out of the driver’s side. He doesn’t notice because he’s passing the big trailer truck and that’s when the cat jumps onto his face, spitting and clawing, its talons raking into one eye, puncturing it, deflating it, blinding it. Sixty and the hum of the Lincoln’s big motor and the other paw is hooked over the bridge of the nose, digging in with exquisite, damning pain – maybe the Lincoln starts to veer right, into the path of the Jimmy, and its airhorn blares ear-shatteringly, but Gage can’t hear it because the cat is yowling, the cat is spread-eagled over his face like some huge furry black spider, ears laid back, green eyes glaring like spotlights from hell, back legs jittering and digging into the soft flesh of the old man’s neck. The car veers wildly back the other way. The bridge abutment looms. The cat jumps down and the Lincoln, a shiny black torpedo, hits the cement and goes up like a bomb.
Halston swallowed hard and heard a dry click in his throat. “And the cat came back?”
Drogan nodded. “A week later. On the day Dick Gage was buried, as a matter of fact. Just like the old song says. The cat came back.”
“It survived a car crash at sixty? Hard to believe.”
“They say each one has nine lives. When it comes back…that’s when I started to wonder if it might not be a…a…”
“Hellcat?” Halston suggested softly.
“For want of a better word, yes. A sort of demon sent …”
“To punish you.”
“I don’t know. But I’m afraid of it. I feed it, or rather, the woman who comes in to do for me feeds it. She doesn’t like it either. She says that face is a curse of God. Of course, she’s local.” The old man tried to smile and failed. “I want you to kill it. I’ve lived with it for the last four months. It skulks around in the shadows. It looks at me. It seems to be
… waiting. I lock myself in my room every night and still I wonder if I’m going to wake up one early and find it…curled up on my chest…and purring.”
The wind whined lonesomely outside and made a strange hooting noise in the stone chimney.
“At last I got in touch with Saul Loggia. He recommended you. He called you a stick, I believe.”
“A one-stick. That means I work on my own.”
“Yes. He said you’d never been busted, or even suspected. He said you always seem to land on your feet…like a cat.”
Halston looked at the old man in the wheelchair. And his long-fingered, muscular hands were lingering above the cat’s neck.
“I’ll do it now, if you want me to,” he said softly. “I’ll snap its neck. It won’t even know – ”
“No!” Drogan cried. He drew in a long, shuddering breath. Color had come up in his sallow cheeks. “Not…not here. Take it away.”
Halston smiled humorlessly. He began to stroke the sleeping cat’s head and shoulders and back very gently again. “All right,” he said. “I accept the contract. Do you want the body?”
“No. Kill it. Bury it.” He paused. He hunched forward in the wheelchair like some ancient buzzard. “Bring me the tail,” he said. “So I can throw it in the fire and watch it burn.”
Halston drove a 1973 Plymouth with a custom Cyclone Spoiler engine. The car was jacked and blocked, and rode with the hood pointing down at the road at a twenty degree angle. He had rebuilt the differential and the rear end himself. The shift was a Pensy, the linkage was Hearst. It sat on huge Bobby Unser Wide Ovals and had a top end of a little past one-sixty. He left the Drogan house at a little past 9:30. A cold rind of crescent moon rode overhead through the tattering November clouds. He rode with all the windows open, because that 63
yellow stench of age and terror seemed to have settled into his clothes and he didn’t like it. The cold was hard and sharp, eventually numbing, but it was good. It was blowing that yellow stench away. He got off the turnpike at Placer’s Glen and drove through the silent town, which was guarded by a single yellow blinker at the intersection, at a thoroughly respectable thirty-five. Out of town, moving up S.R. 35, he opened the Plymouth up a little, letting her walk. The tuned Spoiler engine purred like the cat had purred on his lap earlier this evening. Halston grinned at the simile. They moved between frost-white November fields full of skeleton cornstalks at a little over seventy.
The cat was in a double-thickness shopping bag, tied at the top with heavy twine. The bag was in the passenger bucket seat. The cat had been sleepy and purring when Halston put it in, and it had purred through the entire ride. It sensed, perhaps, that Halston liked it and felt at home with it. Like himself, the cat was a one-stick. Strange hit, Halston thought, and was surprised to find that he was taking it seriously as a hit. Maybe the strangest thing about it was that he actually liked the cat, felt a kinship with it. If it had managed to get rid of those three old crocks, more power to it…especially Gage, who had been taking it to Milford for a terminal date with a crew-cut veterinarian who would have been more than happy to bundle it into a ceramic-lined gas chamber the size of a microwave oven. He felt a kinship but no urge to renege on the hit. He would do it the courtesy of killing it quickly and well. He would park off the road beside one of those November-barren fields and take it out of the bag and stroke it and then snap its neck and sever its tail with his pocketknife.