The Pharaoh Cats
by Rob Dinsmoor
My sister Denise, a well-to-do doctor with a deep love of animals, especially novel ones, ordered one of the Pharaoh cats from a breeding facility in California. It was to be shipped to an outlet in the nearby town of Beverly. Ordinarily she would “rescue” a cat but, the fact was, there didn’t seem to be any Pharaoh cats in shelters. No one ever seemed to abandon them, and they never got lost. The cat arrived two days later.
Pharaoh cats were all identical. They were black, with small, sleek bodies, short fur, and big ears. They were the most sought-after cats in the world, with people paying hefty sums of money for them. Entrepreneurs opened Pharaoh cat breeding facilities, churning the cats out in multitudes, and it wasn’t long before over half of the cat population consisted of Pharaoh cats.
No one seemed to know exactly where they came from. There was a theory that they came from the indigenous peoples of Peru, who used them for hunting because of their prodigious cunning. One rumor floating around had them being disinterred from Egyptian tombs, where they had been found mummified, somehow brought back to life, and bred prodigiously. A related theory was that their mummified remains were somehow cloned.
I was in the living room using an old slipper to play tug-of-war with Denise’s happy-go-lucky yellow lab, Truman, when the van pulled up. It was unmarked, a sort of neutral beige color, and very clean. A serious-looking woman, likely in her 60s, dressed in a dark shirt and pants, stepped out with a clipboard.
Denise rushed outside, and I followed. After shaking hands with my sister, the driver opened the back doors of the van. Inside was a fur-lined cubbyhole with toys, a food dish, a water dish, a litter box with a tiny tent over it, and even a tiny TV screen showing kittens playing with a ball of yarn. My sister’s Pharaoh cat was busily playing with a squeaky toy, oblivious to the humans around it.
“This is Fatima,” the lady driver said. “She’ll eat most seafood, but she prefers tuna and crab. If she goes outside, which we discourage, she needs to be wearing her special footwear.” She pointed to four tiny black shoes — were they leather? — hanging in a clear plastic bag from a special portable closet that also included what I assumed to be a series of different-colored winter coats.
“I expected to see the name of your breeding facility on the side of the van,” Denise said.
“We used to do that,” the lady said, “But our vans got robbed, once even at gunpoint.” When I looked into her eyes, which seemed completely devoid of humor, I realized that she was probably serious. Yet, considering that the cats fetched thousands of dollars, if the proper papers were in order, I could see that the vans might be a target for crime.
I was studying the strange pin she had, a tiny mock-up of an Egyptian cat goddess I’d seen in archeology books when, out of nowhere, a wiry man in his forties with a shaved head and a bushy brown beard appeared. He seemed clearly out of place in that neighborhood. He was smoking a cigarette in a zip code where smoking was practically illegal; he reeked of tar, and it seemed as if his skin, clothing, and beard were all tinted gray. “Is that a Pharaoh cat?” he asked.
Neither woman responded, probably hoping he’d just go away, so I just nodded. “I’ve always wanted to look at one of those up close,” the man said.
“Could you step aside, please?” the driver said to him.
The driver grabbed a small, fur-lined bed and held it at the edge of the van. “Come on, Fatima, honey!” she said. Fatima stood up from her mouse toy, yawned, and walked slowly over to the bed. Then she threw all her weight down into the bed, and the driver carried her up the front walk to the steps.
The man was still standing at the gate of Denise’s front lawn. “I’ve been meaning to get a Pharaoh cat,” he said. “Where did she get hers?”
Staring toward to house, trying to avoid eye contact, I said, “I don’t know. Some company in California, I think.”
“Wow, those breeding facilities are cropping up all over the place!” he said.
“Yeah, seems like,” I responded, and moved toward the house.
The man took his cellphone out of his pocket and appeared to start snapping pictures of the house and the license plate of the car. “What are you doing?” I called.
“What do you mean? What are you talking about?” he said.
So that was the way he was going to play it. I held up my cellphone, zoomed in on his face, and snapped his picture. “Did you just snap my picture?” he asked, approaching me.
“I did, and if you continue to trespass on my sister’s property, I’m calling the police!” I called out and went into the house.
I could hear Truman starting to bark inside, stopping the driver cold. “Is that a dog?” she asked, incredulously.
“That’s Truman,” Denise responded. “He’s very friendly.’
“Your application mentioned nothing about a dog!” the lady said.
“Well, I got him after I applied,” Denise lied.
“I see,” the driver said, clearly disapproving of the situation. “We’ll see if Truman works out.”
As expected, Truman came running up, barking and wagging his tail, when the cat was brought in. Fatima stared at Truman and arched her back. Truman backed up and then retreated under the dining room table with his tail between his legs. I figured that Fatima could take care of herself.
The bearded man was still standing in front of the house when the van left. I wished he’d go away. I couldn’t exactly call the police because someone was standing somewhere too long. I considered going to ask him pointedly if there was anything I could help him with but, by the time I summoned up my courage, he was gone.
After a few days, my sister phoned me to tell me that Truman had disappeared. He had been playing in the front lawn and then he was just gone. Denise, devastated, found a picture of Truman and made a “Lost Dog” poster. She put up dozens in a three-block radius of her house. No one called.
A few days later, I took the two-hour drive to my sister’s house to help her look for Truman. When I arrived, I rang the doorbell several times, but there was no answer. I found that the door was unlocked and went inside. I saw Fatima walk by — at least I thought it was Fatima — and then I saw another Pharaoh cat and then another, and then I realized the house was full of them. There were at least a dozen, all roaming around her large house, and the smell of cat pee was pervasive.
I found Denise in her home office, staring at her laptop. The first thing I noticed was that she wasn’t her usual well-groomed self. It appeared as if she hadn’t showered in a while, and she was wearing a bathrobe with an egg stain on it. “Didn’t you hear me ring the doorbell?” I asked. After there was no response, I asked, “Where did all the cats come from?”
“They’re all from Egypt,” she said, as if that explained everything. “Did you know that there are something like forty thousand homeless Pharaoh cats in Cairo alone? It’s terrible!” She showed me the Website she was looking at. “Fortunately, the nonprofit I volunteer with, the Pharaoh Cat Relief Fund, rescues them and sends them stateside. I’m taking a leave of absence to help track and rescue them.”
“You seem a little...” I began but couldn’t figure out a nice way to finish that sentence. “Are you still torn up about Truman’s disappearance?”
“Your yellow lab. The one you rescued?”
“I’m okay with it,” she said, not looking up from her computer screen. “Now, if one of my cats disappeared, then I’d be devastated.” I was a little shocked, knowing how much she had loved that dog.
I tried to get her out of the house, to go see a movie or eat out, but she wouldn’t budge. “I’ve got to get out of the house or I’ll go nuts!” I complained.
“Well, I signed up for the Pharaoh Cat Festival at Lynch Park tomorrow, sponsored by the Pharaoh Cat Relief Fund. You can get outdoors then. It’ll be fun!” I figured that getting her out of the house was a great idea, so I agreed.
Denise wanted to bring her favorite dozen or so cats, but I convinced her that that we should just bring Fatima. “The other cats will be there in spirit, and we can bring home photos for them!” I chirped, and she agreed.
Denise showered for the first time in I don’t know how long and actually put on make-up.
Traffic in the park was dreadful, and I had never seen that many people there. The organizers were extremely good, however, and had a route set up by which one person could take the cat from the appointed drop-off place and the other could park.
I dropped off Denise, who carried Fatima in her favorite crate, and then let several of the PCRF volunteers guide me into a space. As I came up to the main entrance to the event, I discovered that there was a security line: armed guards were checking bags and running metal detectors over people’s bodies while others were directing people through special x-ray machines.
Once I got through, I tried to locate my sister, which was no small task in a park filled with thousands of people. A lot of them, mostly women, were wearing pins, bracelets, and earrings of the Egyptian cat statue. Some had Pharaoh cats tattooed on their arms and torsos.
The PCRF had a booth where they sold Pharaoh cat pins, jewelry, posters (“Pharaoh Cats Rule!”), and bumper stickers. Many of the Pharaoh cat carriers were extremely ornate, with gold trim and embedded materials. (Was that ivory?) In a couple of instances, there were people with the crates mounted on poles, carrying them around like slaves carrying around Egyptian royalty.
Eventually I found Denise and Fatima. Denise was now wearing a pin of one of the cat statuettes. “What is that thing, exactly?” I asked. “I’ve been seeing it all over.”
She looked at me incredulously. “Everyone knows what that is. It’s a statue of the Egyptian cat goddess, Bastet!” She shook her head at my stupidity.
Everyone was cooing over everyone else’s Pharaoh cats, even though — except for size and gender — they were identical. Of course, they were all dressed differently, and that’s what made them special. Some had special crowns or tiaras, sometimes made of gold and diamonds. Some of them were adorned to look like the cat goddess Bastet. No wonder there were guards armed with machine guns patrolling the grounds!
While my sister was basking in all the people fawning over Fatima, I had my eye trained on a lone figure with a shaved head and beard, moving from booth to booth, smiling, taking pictures, and pausing for the occasional smoke. He even loitered at the organizers’ booth, grinning, putting up some kind of flyer on every available flat surface, and taking snapshots of people registering their Pharaoh cats. I recognized him: he was the guy who had been loitering when Fatima arrived at my sister’s place.
A lady who I assumed to be one of the organizers came up to him, pointing this way and that and shouting. Then she spoke to one of the seated organizers, who abruptly stood and shouted at him.
He put his hands up in a defensive posture, smiled tautly, and shook his head. The organizer who had been seated called to one of the armed guards, but the armed guard looked like he didn’t hear her. The skinhead backed off and began fading into the crowd. I decided to follow him, even as the two organizers were approaching the armed guard.
Copyright © 2017 by Rob Dinsmoor