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Tom Cat and the Bone Lady

by Sue Parman

part 2 of 3

It was as though a circuit had suddenly switched off in her brain. She stood like a robot, her face blank. Another circuit switched on: terror. She moved in slow motion when she was scared, filtering each word, jabbing it with her finger until it gibbered. Dean. Pound. Death.

She backed out and down the hall out of my sight. I stroked the cat until both of us stopped trembling. My eyes were running, and my nose felt like it had turned to cotton wool. I pried the cat off my leg and set it on top of the desk, where it looked at me with its velvety brownish-green eyes.

It reminded me of the cat I had found in a dumpster when I was ten years old; I had smuggled it home and raised it under my bed until my mother finally got up the nerve to clean my room and realized why I had developed a permanent case of sniffles. They never told me what happened to it.

At Station #2 you will find a skull brought in by a hiker in a Molerun Canyon. Is it the skull of a man, a woman, or a saber-toothed tiger? Is it likely to be a forensic case?

It looked surprisingly young, not quite a kitten. But she had been talking about Tom Cat for at least eight years, since I first joined the department.

I felt a tremor of discomfort through the sniffles. Maybe she had serial Tom Cats. Maybe this was Tom Cat VIII. Didn’t the cat I saw last week have a chewed left ear rather than a chewed right ear? It suddenly occurred to me to wonder what happened to all the Tom Cats in her life. The students went to the guillotine with their eyes open; but what chance did a cat have?

Station #3 contains the human remains recovered in a shark’s stomach in Florida. This species of shark is known to eat virtually anything, so be careful to distinguish the human from non-human remains (including conches, horseshoe crabs, sea turtle, porpoise, copper wire, clothing, and an unopened can of salmon). Skin fragments were removed and preserved. The bones have been soaked in enzyme detergent and a dilute solution of sodium hypochloride. Read the attached handout on patterns of shark bites. Identify the human bones and present your argument about the victim’s age at death.

“Do you have a complaint, Tom Cat?” I asked it.

“Meowrr,” said the cat, and thrust its small head under my chin. If I had had false teeth, I would have sneezed them out the window.

The door opened suddenly, before I could sweep the cat back onto my lap. “Oh there you are!” Mrs. Stirling’s red-rimmed eyes caught sight of Tom Cat, who danced across the desk toward her without a backward glance at me and jumped into her open arms. Mrs. Stirling had seven cats of her own and was the primary recipient of Cecily’s cat stories and the only secretary that Cecily trusted to take care of Tom Cat when her ex-husband wasn’t available. “She was so upset! Wherever did you find him?”

“He must have slipped in here when Damon left,” I stammered. I was as bad as Damon. “Traitor!” I sent thought-daggers at the cat that now peeked out over Mrs. Stirling’s bright blue sleeve. I was glad to see that the blue sleeve was now fuzzy with orange cat hair.

“I won’t say where I found him,” said Mrs. Stirling, but it became clear that her generosity had nothing to do with pity for me. “You know that she’s got this big forensic case coming up” — by “she” I knew she meant Cecily, whose court cases were discussed among the secretaries with the same fanatic interest as they discussed crime shows on television. “You know the slightest thing upsets her, when she’s got to use all her judgment on those bones.”

“She’s got another court case?” I felt my shoulder muscles tense. Life would be hell again this semester. Cecily was sensitive to criticism. It was one thing to work side by side (and belly to belly) with detectives hunting for bodies on midnight hillsides; it was another to get up on the witness stand under the questions of a hostile lawyer. Cecily got shrill when her judgment was questioned.

Several years ago she had made the mistake of saying in court, “Yes, it’s a human femur. On the other hand, it may be a cow bone.” The lawyer had said immediately, “I move that Dr. Seck be removed as an expert witness, if she can’t tell a human bone from a cow bone.” There were rumors that Cecily had asked one of her detective boyfriends to take out the lawyer.

“It’s a really important case.” Mrs. Stirling was torn between wanting to call Cecily to tell her she’d found the cat and wanting to drop hints about the latest Great Case. I must admit I didn’t try to shoo her out of the office. She lowered her voice. “She’s calling it the Satanic Jewel Box Case.”

“Meowrr!” said Tom Cat, with the wail of a banshee, and Mrs. Stirling backed hastily out the door.

I sat with shivers running down my spine and tears down my face, part aesthetic appreciation of Tom Cat’s well-timed wail, part allergy, and part envy. Cecily couldn’t write an untwisted sentence to save her life — all her publications were co-authored — but she had the gift of Grade B movie titles.

She had told people for the last twenty years that she was writing a memoir of her famous cases, but she seemed to get no further than the chapter headings. The Case of the Strangled Hippie. Maggot Man. The Body in the Basement. Seven-Fingered Sid and his Faithful Fido.

Cecily dropped details about these cases into casual conversation like drips of hot acid (If you were to say, “I planted roses last week,“ you’d be likely to get the reply, “Be careful you don’t uncover a head like I did working on the Maggot Man case. Only his head showing, and when we flipped him out of the hole he was packed with maggots.”

Her tidbits always stopped conversation cold, after which she cited case confidentiality and refused to elaborate. But this last one had made it into the papers: the skeleton of a man with seven fingers buried in the basement of a famous movie star. When the bones were sorted out, it seems that some of them weren’t human. Forensic osteologists prided themselves on their ability to distinguish human from other animal bones.

Dr. Seck’s analysis: a dog had been buried with the man, hence Seven-Fingered Sid and his Faithful Fido. The name stuck, even when it was discovered that the owner of the house had buried his dog seven years before a homeless man died of a heart attack in the basement. Cecily had been defensive about that case as well. Couldn’t she tell that the two bodies had been buried at different times? And that layers of earth separated the two skeletons?

Curiosity piqued, I gave up on grading papers and ambled down the hall. Mrs. Stirling was just putting down the phone. Tom Cat was standing up on his hind legs batting at the midges surrounding the philodendron.

The department office was beginning to look like a rain forest. Many of the plants were birthday and anniversary gifts to the staff from Cecily, who always lied about her own birthday (she never seemed to have one) and had as many wedding anniversary dates as Saints Days.

“What in the world is the Satanic Jewel Box Case?” I asked.

Mrs. Stirling had become a secretary at fifty-eight to get away, it was rumored, from the duties of being a grandmother among prolific children. Her desk was covered with photographs. She leaned across these photographs toward me, and I leaned over between leafy fronds, with Tom Cat batting at the leaves a few inches below my chin. I struggled not to sneeze. “A jewel box in the middle of a forest glade,” she whispered. “Filled with tiny bones.”

“What kind of bones?” I looked down into Mrs. Stirling’s red-rimmed eyes that were filled with tears and gossip. This is the kind of woman who would have hovered over the back fence during the days of the Salem Witch Trials asking, “Who gets torched today, dearie?” Or maybe she was allergic to cats too, and didn’t want to admit it to Cecily.

“The bones of children,” she whispered.

Someone screamed. I think it was me. Tom Cat had launched himself at my jugular. I shifted the claws to my jersey as Cecily came roaring into the room. “So you did have him!” she shrieked. “I’ll have you jailed for catnapping!”

She grabbed the cat. He yowled and hung on, and his claws took sizeable chunks of the jersey with him as she wrenched him off my chest. Uncertain what to do with my trembling hands, I stuck my fingers through the holes. “I do not catnap, Cecily.” My voice sounded as though it were being squeezed through a tube of toothpaste. “I stay awake throughout my classes, and even during the Dean’s speeches. And I’m sending you the bill for a new sweater.”

“Tom Cat hates you!” shrieked Cecily, competing with the howling cat. “If I find him dead one morning, I’ll know who did it!”

The tornado of sound faded down the hall. The air was littered with floating cat hair.

“You shouldn’t have done that, Dr. Ferguson,” said Mrs. Stirling finally. Her voice seemed shaky too.

I hardly heard her. Whatever Cecily said about her care of Tom Cat, it did not include clutching him gently.

I leaned over the philodendron again. “Mrs. Stirling, do you like cats?”

She was indignant. “Of course! You know I do!”

“If that was a cat’s mating cry, I’m its pajamas. That was a cry for help.”

“Nonsense! Dr. Seck loves her Tom Cat.” But she wouldn’t look me in the eye.

The Satanic Jewel Box appeared on Mrs. Stirling’s desk in the middle of March, a few weeks before Spring Break. Every faculty member in the department suddenly developed an interest in Mrs. Stirling’s philodendron, or needed help downloading student records; and in the middle of the conversation, they would point a casual elbow at the box and say something clever like, “New cigarette box?” or “So your husband trusts you with the family jewels these days?”

And Mrs. Stirling would say smugly, “Dr. Seck’s latest case.” In her usual paranoia, Cecily was afraid to leave the bones at home, where they might be stolen despite the deadbolts and alarm system and Safe Room, and afraid to leave them in her office while she taught her classes, in case a janitor being given a blow job by the defense might steal them.

The Satanic Jewel Box was twelve inches square and twenty inches high. It was made of metal that appeared to be silver but never tarnished as long as it sat on Mrs. Stirling’s desk, which either meant that she polished it hourly or it was infused with nickel or zinc or some other element that inhibited corrosion.

The metal was worked in intricate detail. Tiny dots had been impressed into the surface of the metal to make flower patterns. I had the novel idea of calling attention to the box by asking Mrs. Stirling what she thought the flowers were.

“Not roses,” she said, her interest piqued. “Some foreign flower. They look rubbery — you know, those Hawaiian flowers that last forever.”

“Birds of Paradise.”

“No, those have beaks and head tassels. No, these look...” she shivered deliciously, “carnivorous.”

I flipped open the box, which wasn’t locked, and saw a small heap of bones nestled on velvet cloth before she slammed the lid down. “Ow!” I sucked my thumb.

“These are Top Secret!” She was outraged. I could see I had lost paper-copying privileges for at least a month.

The fingers of bears and humans are very similar. Identify the species at Station #4.

The case was featured frequently in the news, and Mrs. Stirling faithfully put up all newspaper accounts about the case on the department bulletin board. The photographs of Cecily looked suspiciously like the 25-year-old photographs on her web page.

Damon was more cheerful. “She’s letting me rehang the skeleton,” he sighed. “Some of its nuts were loose.”

“Lucky you,” I grunted, buried with midterms. It was far too late to tell him to watch out for his own neck and nuts.

But the next day there were no photographs of Cecily, only the lawyer of the man on whose property the box had been found. Mrs. Stirling didn’t put up that article, but I fished it out of the waste basket and smuggled it into my office. The lawyer had raised questions about the box: why wasn’t it being made available to his client’s own forensic experts? Were the bones really those of human children? Hadn’t Dr. Seck once confused a human femur with a cow bone?

“Uh oh,” I muttered.

Cecily’s explosion over this article was heralded by the arrival of Tom Cat streaking through the department office in front of his mistress. I had been buttering up Mrs. Stirling with appropriate oohs and aahs over the latest photographs of her mewling grandchildren when I felt the needle pains of Tom Cat’s claws up the back of my leg. This time he went all the way to the top of my head and clung there, shivering all the way through my skull.

Because I was shielded by the philodendron, Cecily didn’t notice him at first. Today she was wearing her Great White Hunter outfit: safari jacket with short, tight leather skirt and hip-high boots. She had dyed her hair deep red and wore matching lipstick. The shaking cat must have done something to my brain because I didn’t hear what she said until the part about detectives being stationed in all the classrooms.

For the first time Mrs. Stirling looked uncomfortable rather than fawning. “Shouldn’t you check with the chair about that?” she asked.

Cecily leaned over the philodendron, and I swear there wasn’t a midge in sight. They had all dived for cover. “The chair isn’t doing a thing to stop the cheating. I’ve got to take this into my own hands.” As she spoke, saliva spattered the leaves. Her pupils looked dilated. “The students send messages. It’s got to be stopped.”

“Messages?” Mrs. Stirling edged back in her chair and began to look at the photographs on her desk, as if counting her grandchildren. In a few years they would be old enough to attend the university.

Station #5: In the Planned Urban Development of Islandia, no garage door shall be permitted to remain open for more than four consecutive hours, any color other than gray and light green car covers must be approved, and additions or alterations to property must be approved by the architectural committee. On the morning of May 1, 1985, a fragmentary femur with all the epiphyses gnawed off was found on the lawn of a house on Shadowfax Avenue. Look for signs of burial or sun bleaching that would indicate length of burial; also pay attention to aroma. How recent would you say this case is?

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2008 by Sue Parman

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