By Jerre B. Shoemake
Louisa could not sleep. She was fairly certain she was just overtired. The house was clean but it had taken two and a half days. It still wasn’t up to her usual standard but it would have to do. The baking for the family get together on Christmas Eve was just about finished, too. She had sat down with Jasper before he went out for the night and talked over everything that was on her mind, including the recent break-ins. She told him about her theory that the economic situation had a lot to do with the thefts, it being Christmas and all, and how very sorry she was for the victims. For a big old cat he was a very good listener. She chuckled as she added a little milk and honey to her decaf Chai tea. He had patted her hand with his paw and smiled. Then he meowed politely could he please go out the window. He just didn’t care for doors.
She grinned to her self again and shook her head. Every pet that she had ever owned or been owned by was distinctly unusual but this cat topped the list. She lowered herself into the dining table chair and stirred her Chai. She loved to sit there and stare out the big double window whether it was daytime or night but cold, winter nights with a full moon were her favorite. The frigid light gave the grass, the trees, everything a silvery sheen. The light was strong enough to see just about anything in the yard.
She caught a movement out of the corner of her eye and smiled again. It was Jasper and he was on the move. He didn’t appear to be in a hurry or have anyplace in particular to go, just checking things out. He strolled behind the little cedar she had planted at the edge of the yard. A few more years and it would be a pretty little tree but right now its limbs grew very close to the ground, more like a rounded shrub, but still an interesting addition to the landscape.
She stopped in mid sip and blinked her eyes. Leaning forward she stared hard at the thing that was coming out from behind the cedar. It was Jasper but the moonlight had to be playing tricks. He seemed three times larger and walked on his hind legs for a second, then dropped back on all four legs. He quickly disappeared in the shadows.
“Wow,” she said aloud. “Come on Louisa, you’re just exhausted. You did not see what you thought you saw.”
The cup of Chai was just about gone so she finished it up and set the cup in the sink. That little chore could wait till morning. The warm bed was calling her name but right before she climbed in she stopped. The memory of one of the things that disrupted her sleep popped into her mind. The reports of break-ins in the area over the last few weeks concerned her, but not too much. It was obvious there weren’t a lot of valuable things in her little home. She had lived there for the last thirty seven years but had collected more junk than anything that had monetary worth. The last report, however, put the break-ins a little less than a mile away. She turned away from the bedroom and went to double check the locks on the doors and windows. Everything was as secure as she could make it. She sat down on the side of the bed and checked the shotgun. It was properly cleaned and loaded and leaned against the headboard in easy reach. She nodded her head, slid under the quilt and was soon in a deep sleep.
At some point during the night she abruptly came awake. Listening for a moment, she heard nothing out of the ordinary. She stared into the darkness as she strained to hear what might have jerked her to consciousness.
The comforting sound of Daddy’s old mantel clock ticking away lulled her back toward sleep. A memory of someone and or something screaming drifted through her mind but it was too late. She slept.
The phone ringing at the same time the mantel clock started striking seven the next morning, snatched her from her dreams. She rolled over and stared at the phone. She was still groggy. She couldn’t remember her dreams but knew she was relieved to be awake.
“Louisa, are you all right?” The person on the other end of the line sounded agitated so Louisa didn’t catch the voice immediately.
“Are you all right? I’ve tried to call twice and I couldn’t get you to answer. I was worried. You never sleep this late.” The worried edge in the voice was confusing.
“Ah, who is this?”
“What in the hell’s the matter with you Louisa, it’s Maggie.”
“Oh, Sweetie, I’m sorry. I was so tired last night I couldn’t sleep, but when I crashed I crashed big time.” She sat up on the side of the bed.
“What’s going on? You sound scared to death. Maggie, those freaks didn’t break in on you did they?”
“No, no. They robbed or they tried to rob the Blaylocks.”
“I’m not real surprised.”
“Me neither. That fancy new house and they’ve been bringing in tons of gifts and things. Marie’s been keeping the whole area updated on how much they’ve spent on Christmas, not to mention they told anybody that would listen that they would be out of town at a spa until this afternoon.”
Maggie had a bit of an envy problem with Marie Blaylock. Louisa tried to get back on topic. “What exactly happened? Did anybody get hurt?”
“Not unless you count the thieves.”
“What do you mean?” Louisa had made it to the kitchen and was trying to hold the phone to her ear with her shoulder while she put on a pot of coffee.
“Apparently someone or something attacked all three of them and pretty much ripped them to shreds,” breathed Maggie at her most dramatic. “Two of them bled all over the front yard and there was a third one found on the porch. That’s about all I know right now.”
“Lord. Listen, I’ll be out in the studio. Give me a call if you find out anything more. I’ve finished my Christmas cleaning and baking and I need to get started on some more paintings. I’ve got a show in February.”
“Oh I will. I’m still trying to figure out how the deputies found out about it. The sun’s just now coming up so I’m really curious.”
“Yeah. Talk to you later.”
Louisa walked into her kitchen, opened the dishwasher and started to put her cup from the night before on the top rack. She stopped and stood still holding the used cup in her hand. Two thoughts entered her mind at almost the same instant. She clearly remembered hearing a scream sometime during the night and Jasper could have been headed toward the Blaylock’s last night. Marie was in the habit of throwing leftovers over their back fence and Jasper loved “people food”, especially broccoli, almost as good as he loved canned tuna. It was a regular stop on his wanderings.
She tore through the house checking all the windows. The only way that the cat would enter the house was through a window and he would wait patiently until Louisa noticed that he was sprawled on the outside sill. There was no cat waiting to be let in the house. She walked out on the back deck and called but there was no Jasper in sight. She nibbled at her bottom lip. There was no reason to worry right now. Jasper was the epitome of a tom cat and he stayed away from home for days at a time. Just a few months ago he had been gone over a week and had come home looking like he had been fighting a pissed off tiger. But he was a fast healer so he was fine in a week or so.
He was a strange cat from the beginning. He was the only kitten in the litter and he was huge. The first time Louisa had seen him clearly was when he was about two weeks old. He came stumbling out of the bedroom closet, stopped at her feet, looked up and yowled. She was shocked. He was the size of a six week old kitten, his eyes were opened wide and she was positive he had come looking for her to tell her to fix him something to eat. She rustled him up some bread soaked in warm milk and set the bowl before him. Fluffy, his mother, danced around him in concern as he ate every bit. Then the round ball of fur had wobbled after Louisa until she sat down. He struggled to climb into her lap, so she picked him up where he curled into her hands and promptly went to sleep.
That wasn’t a great time in Louisa’s life but the cat made it easier somehow. He had a big round head, tortoiseshell design on his back, spots on his belly and a long ringed tail. He listened to everything she said and never walked away until he was sure she was through. Occasionally he brought her gifts, a leaf, sometimes a mouse and once a snake. She hadn’t been happy about the mice or the snake. The screeching and yelling she had done apparently made it clear that those types of gifts weren’t appreciated. From then on he only brought the leaves and sometimes a pinecone or a small rock. She had a wine glass full of his pinecone gifts on the kitchen window sill. She had tried to figure out where he might have found the unique little burrs. She knew this area very well but couldn’t recall ever seeing a tree that produced such small pinecones. All of them were blemished in some way so she figured he must have found them on the ground beneath the tree. She had pictured deer or maybe even cows walking under the tree, crushing them into the ground. Her artist’s mind craved a perfect pinecone off that tree. She sighed. No more thinking she mumbled. There was only one way to stop her whirling thoughts. She grabbed a shawl and went outside. The door creaked as Louisa walked into her studio and picked up a brush.
When she looked up again it was to see the winter sun low in the western sky. She was more than satisfied with her work. She quickly cleaned her brushes and headed for the house, looking all the time for the cat.
“He’s just not ready to come home yet,” she told the sky.
The answering machine was blinking when she walked into the kitchen. She quickly returned a few calls and then dialed Maggie’s number.
“Hey. Sorry it took so long to call you back. I got all into painting and forgot to take the cordless with me. What’s up?”
Maggie’s breathing gave away her excitement. She didn’t even bother to scold Louisa for not having the phone in the studio.
“OK. Here’s what I’ve got…the Blaylock’s alarm system went off about three, three thirty this morning. One of the deputies rode by but didn’t see anything. A few minutes later the new people that moved in next to the Blaylock’s last month called the Sheriff’s department and said it sounded like people were being massacred over there. The same deputy went back to walk around the house. That’s when he found the three guys. Two were lying in great big pools of blood out by their truck and the third one was lying on the porch right beside the open front door. The deputy told Barbara and Albert, that’s the new neighbors, that all the stuff they stole was in the back of the old pickup truck covered up with a tarp.”
She paused for a breath. “Then he told them that the weirdest thing was that the guy on the porch was missing a finger. Said it looked like it had been bitten clean off but was nowhere to be found. Isn’t that awful?”
“It’s pretty awful, Maggie,” agreed Louisa.
“I guess they still don’t have any real clues?”
“None that I know of. I’ll call if I hear anything.”
“I would appreciate it. Is the sheriff sure these three are the creeps that were breaking in all those houses?”
“Yeah, they found out where they were staying and recovered a good bit of stuff taken in the other robberies. Guess we don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
“Yeah, guess so. Let me know if you hear anything else.”
Louisa clicked the off button and looked at the phone.
“I wonder if she’s thought to worry about what killed the bad guys?”
She shrugged and started on her nighttime routine except there was no Jasper to talk to tonight either.
Christmas Eve dawned clear and not quite so cold. Louisa was up at six brewing a fresh pot of coffee. She sat at the table and stared out the window. Two cups later she sighed and started to tidy up the house. When the sun was up she stepped to the deck and looked all around but there was no Jasper. She heard the phone ringing and went back in to answer it. It was Maggie with an update.
“The deputy came back by the Blaylock’s late yesterday to see if they found anything else missing. Guess they thought they’d give Marie some time to wash away all the blood.”
“Makes sense to me,” said Louisa. “Did they find anything else that was missing?”
“Actually they did,” giggled Maggie. “Marie had a huge bag of cut up raw vegetables in the fridge for her famous “crudités” and dips. I know the whole thing’s not funny but she was so furious because the whole damn bag was gone. She kept going on about how long it had taken her to cut up all those vegetables.”
“Did the deputies find any of it?”
“Nope, not even a baby carrot.”
Louisa laughed. “You’re right, that’s really strange. But then the whole mess is strange.”
“You can say that again, Sweetie. Listen y’all have a great time this afternoon and if I don’t talk to you for the next day or two, have a very Merry Christmas!”
“You too, Mags, tell the kids and Travis Merry Christmas for me.”
Louisa decided to make one more turn through the house and check all the windows but there was still no Jasper.
“OK,” she said aloud. “One more check of the deck and I’ll just have to let it go…at least until tomorrow.”
She stepped out and was greeted with a rumbling meow. A little squeal of joy escaped her lips. “Jasper, where have you been? You’re probably starving. Come on, baby and I’ll fix you some tuna. You know its Christmas Eve, don’t you?”
He allowed her to pick him up and take him in the house through the door. He ate his tuna then sauntered into the living room.
“Here’s your Christmas present you old rascal.”
She tossed a loosely wrapped package in his general direction. He stood and stared at the sparkling package, and then he started to sniff. It took him less than a second to tear the paper off the toy mouse and the little bag of catnip. The mouse was forgotten as he sniffed and batted the small bag all over the living room floor. He leaped up on the sofa and patted Louisa’s hand. A series of small trilling sounds rolled out of his mouth. Louisa laughed.
“What do I want for Christmas? Let me see,” she said thoughtfully. She ran her fingers over the cat’s head. He didn’t really have cat fur he had a pelt, thick and soft and always warm.
“I know what I want. I want to know that the robberies are over and that whatever attacked those guys won’t hurt anyone else. And I want you to find me another little pinecone, but I want it to be perfect.
“How’s that for a Christmas list?”
A car door slammed in the driveway and high pitched children’s voices could be heard through the front door. Jasper raced to the window in the kitchen and jumped to the sill. Louisa followed, laughing and raised the window for the cat. He seemed frantic to escape but then, Jasper wasn’t overly fond of children. He leaped out the window and streaked toward the barn.
“Thanks for coming home, kitty. That was the best Christmas present ever. They won’t be here too long then you can come back in the house.”
Several hours later she stood on the front porch and waved to the kids and grandkids as they drove out of sight. All told, this had been a lovely day. Jasper was waiting in the shadows and promptly eased up and lovingly twined himself around Louisa’s legs. She picked him up and took him in the house. He jumped out of her arms and galloped to the kitchen ignoring the plate on the floor with bits of turkey and all his holiday favorites. He stood in front of the back door, for all the world like he wanted out. Puzzled she opened the door but he refused to move. He just sat there looking at her with a smile on his cat face.
She shrugged, picked up a flashlight and stepped out. The light caught something on the deck. A pile of dried leaves was arranged right by the door so that she couldn’t miss it. She peered at it from several different angles then nudged it with her toe. The leaves fell away revealing a fresh broccoli head, almost frozen in the cold wind. It was propped up so it was obvious there was something was under it. She nudged the broccoli and it fell away. She leaned down and gasped. It was a cleanly severed finger, human and probably male from the look of it. She swallowed and took two quick deep breaths. Under the finger was one more dried leaf. Louisa picked up a twig that blown off the big oak tree by the deck and slowly lifted the leaf. Carefully tucked underneath the leaf was one tiny, perfect pinecone.