It took another week for the old man to die, and every day it was the same refrain.
“Let no one else see it. Is the safe safe? Don’t judge me too harshly. It was beyond my control.”
He grew more and more maudlin, until, finally, on a cold morning, just as dawn’s gray creep brought a gauzy light to lift his sorrowful mug out of shadow, he turned his head toward me, lifted his dry eyes to mine in one last act of supplication, and kicked it.
The silence was almost immediately broken by the piercing cry of a hawk or some other bird of prey. It returned and returned again, signaling three times with that high-pitched alarm of his breed.
I considered this a good omen. As soon as I had done the necessary with doctors and staff, indeed done it with great speed, to the point where those on the other end of my cursory directions wondered visibly at my seemingly odd behavior following so closely on the expiration of the family patriarch; as soon as this was done and as quickly as decorum would allow, I scurried across the grass driven by a curiosity stimulated to extreme by a week of expectation and a lifetime of wonder.
And, so it was that I could finally, in good faith, open that envelope my father had given me which contained, and contained nothing but, the combination to the much aforementioned safe.
Three numbers and three letters written in his own neat hand on letterhead we hadn’t used for decades.
I’ll try to let my father’s words speak for themselves, limiting any editorializing on my part, for what reason, I am not certain. Perhaps to distance myself, protection from culpability – I was, after all, his most trusted accomplice, his partner in crime, if you will. And it is those words in themselves that prove my point. Crime? What crime exactly? Culpable for what, accomplice to what? So, you see; I say too much.
What he had said was true. Why would it be otherwise? Notebooks and files, typed pages, diskettes, reel to reel tape recordings – useful as gift-wrapping ribbons, I suppose. Where did I start? It does not matter. I continued through to the end, devouring each piece of the puzzle, trying to digest it all, failing, and returning for second servings to try again. This is some of what I found:
Three days later after I awoke puzzled and bruised, I found myself once more out in the yard. Fiddling and futzing as I had been the past 72 hours, unable to concentrate, driven to distraction, as the saying goes. Work had been impossible. My wife was ready to throttle me.
I escaped to a semblance of solitude by the woods, scooping shovelfuls of soil around a transplanted rhododendron – off in my hope garden, that spot I reserved for desperate cases, the sad plants that had failed elsewhere. With little enthusiasm, I knelt over the brittle rhody that suffered from too much sunlight – pushing the soil down around it with my hands.
“Psst!!...” I heard.
I lifted my head and looked around, unsure I’d heard anything, doubting my hearing, indeed, all sensory perceptions, still, three days later.
Again, though, I heard, “Psst!...”
This time I stood and looked around.
“Over here, dipshit!”
I walked into the woods a step and there, tam-o'shanter perched jauntily on his head, cigarette dangling rakishly from his lip, standing, or rather leaning against a tall straight douglas fir, was, the cat.
He recognized the numb disbelief on my face and said, “Didn’t think you’d see me again?”
“Don’t talk. Just shut up and look stupid for a minute. Shouldn’t be too hard for you.”
He took a drag on the cigarette, looked down at the butt and casually flicked it away.
“Look, I don’t want to be here, but those fucking birds have me by the short hairs so I, we, might as well make the most out of this. The fact of the matter is, their mind is made up, all the pieces are in place and if it isn’t you and me it’s two other clowns, and, really, there’s not much to this…”
“Excuse me,” I interrupted.
“No. What part of ‘shut up’ don’t you understand, you ugly lumbering baboon.”
“Give it a rest,” I told him, getting my bearings. I had been lost in the ‘real’ world because all this had been plaguing me, which helped because now I was, physically, where my mind had been for days.
“Your schtick doesn’t play if what you’ve already told me is true.”
I had his attention. He looked less smug.
“One, you can’t continue belittling me if we are in this together, and, two, you are clearly an errand boy, so drop the act.”
“Oh, it’s no act, human.”
“Stop,” I said, glancing around, wondering if my boy or wife might be wandering by. There was no need for them to witness what was either a psychotic break on my part or a terrible freak on the part of nature.
“Just get to the point without being belligerent. There’s no reason we can’t be civil.”
“Fine,” he coughed in a huff, while assuming a posture slightly, but noticeably, less hostile.
We eyed each other, weighing each other up. We were to spend a lot of time together, damn near eternity, and I was glad I had put my foot down. I would not have liked, I wouldn’t have been able to suffer his ridiculous pomposity for as long as I had to, had I not slapped his paw as I did then.
“Just give it to me straight then,” I told him, “without the drama. What is going on? Why am I talking to a cat like you?”
He lifted his cap and ran his paw through disheveled hair, disheveling it more before returning the cap.
“It’s like this. The birds want me to babysit you.”
I looked at him skeptically, frowning and raising an eyebrow.
“OK, they want me to help you, and,” he added, “they want you to help me.”
“And you? Do you want me to help you?”
He shuffled his feet, scratching at the organic litter, the decomposing detritus on the forest floor.
“Well, yes. And, to be perfectly frank, as pissed as I am to have to admit it, I do need you.” He quickly added, though, to compensate for this admission, “But you need me, too.”
“I’m not going to pretend I understand this, hell, I’m not ready to admit that any of this is even ‘really’ happening, but if what I’ve heard, if I even have a shred of true comprehension, I just, I mean, what am I supposed to do? What, what…” I stammered and my ramble just sort of petered out. The cat looked at me with something resembling pity.
“It’s already started,” he sighed, pulled out another cigarette, struck a match against the tree trunk he’d been leaning on, took a deep drag, and said, “the sterilization process has begun. We’re in Phase One.”
I just stared, mute, stunned to speechlessness.
“This first phase will be pretty deep. It’s an all-out offensive, we’ve even enlisted the houseflies. Rats and mosquitoes and their ilk were easy, shit, this is part of their MO, so their noses weren’t bent out of shape. Houseflies, though, that significantly increases our reach, and they’ve always tried to remain below the radar.”
“Are you saying it’s the rats and insects that are doing the sterilization?”
“Oh, not just them. It’s damn near the entire animal kingdom. We want to see broad and massive evidence of success.”
“What constitutes ‘evidence’? It seems the effects of this would take awhile to be evident. At least 9 months, I guess.”
“Yes. And, that’s why we need to get to work. We have some time, not a lot, but there’s a lot we need to do.”
“We need to get funding. We need to identify key humans, key gene pools to retain.”
“Are you saying we are to be the judges of who lives and who dies?”
“You’re looking at this the wrong way. We’re not ‘killing’ anyone. Every human on earth will live as long as he or she was going to live.”
“But don’t you see, that those lives will be significantly changed, for the worse, much much more for the worse.”
He shrugged and took another drag. “Ultimately, it’s for their own good. Humanity will thank us in the end.”
“What’s left of it.”
“Well, what’s left of it should be the best of it. And, that’s why we need to get to work.”
“This is a bit surprising coming from you. You are, from all I’ve seen and heard, seem to me a…man-hater, for want of a better word.”
“I despise you, true. Yet, I need you. For better or worse, I am, what you might call, domesticated. I will not ‘hunt’,” he said snootily. “I have developed more refined tastes, and, as such, more particular requirements than those of my species more feral than myself.”
I thought about this and then it occurred to me, “You’re out on the street.” His whiskers twitched. “You are…homeless.”
“A tough spot for the domesticated.”
I laughed. I enjoyed watching him squirm. Then I took a closer look and saw just how ratty he had become. Burrs and thistles protruded from his dirty fur, which appeared well-soiled and matted in spots. His mock bravado punctured, the façade torn down, this cat, this bombastic mean-spirited cat, actually seemed pitiable, forlorn. My laughter waned and I asked him, “How did you get yourself into this mess?”
“I told you,” he started. “I’m on the lam.” He wasn’t quite ready to accept the role of the pitiful.
“Oh, right…’computer fraud’.”
He tapped his forehead with a paw in an expression that said, ‘duh.’
“But, on the lam from whom exactly? I mean are there cops that go after cats?”
“Not human cops.”
“Cat cops prosecute computer fraud?” I said, still skeptical.
“I just copped to computer fraud because it was a lesser plea. I was initially up for crimes against animality.”
“I violated one of our cardinal rules. Never communicate with humans.”
“Apparently, you haven’t learned your lesson.”
“No, I guess I haven’t.”
“So, you were convicted…”
“I was screwed, railroaded, my lawyer was a snake, it was a real kangaroo court.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do I mean? Jesus, kid, do I have to spell it out for you? They caught me in a cathouse, put me on a train, gave me a diamondback rattler for a defense attorney and then sat me in front of Judge Skippy and her Bouncing Bailifff. I was sent up river.”
“No river, kid, I was speaking metaphorically. Luckily, someone made bail for me and I was out of the hoosegow the next morning. I didn’t stick around to ask questions, I just made tracks, went into hiding on the seedier side of town. That’s where some dirty rat told me about the party in the woods. I hooked up with the possums and figured it was as good a place as any to lay my paws on some scratch. Those weasels had the drug racket, but no one was making a book on the brawl.”
“The fight, man, the fight. You were there, those stupid raccoons. Rocky was bought to take a fall but those two buffoons made a farce of it. That’s when the eagle got me.”
“Right,” I said.
“So, that about catches us up to here.” He stood on tip toes and then crouched, trying to see my house behind me. “Are you going to invite me in, or are you going to make me beg. I could use a clean bed and a stiff drink…not necessarily in that order, if you get my drift.”
He had nerve, you had to give him that.
“Wait a minute! What makes you think…”
“Oh, come on, buddy, don’t make this any harder on me…”
“Harder on you?! You’re asking me to take in a criminal cat and participate in some crazy scheme to end the human race!”
“’End’?! Shit. Again, with the hyperbole. That’s not it at all. Just let me in and I’ll explain the whole thing, nice and slow so you can understand. Do you have cable? High speed internet?”
I just shook my head in disbelief. What else could I do, what else would anyone have done? It was one of those moments when you can feel the weight of the atmosphere, the very air around me seemed heavy with the expectation, as if it was a soup, a plasma that I didn’t move through but which moved me.
“Fine,” I said in resignation, then turned to walk out of the woods. I stopped and looked back, the cat was grinning, beaming, ready to leap past me, “but lose the hat.”
“Right, right,” he said excitedly. “You’re not going to regret this.”
I already was and still do to this day. Too late now, though. The cat scurried behind me then ran ahead, returned, rubbed himself around my ankles almost tripping me as we made our way to my front door.
He stopped short and in a bit of a panic whispered sharply, “You don’t have a dog do you?”