Tripped by a Cat

A short story by Nancy Sherer and Anna Konopka.

Willie eyed the undergrowth suspiciously as he pushed his shopping cart along the deserted trail. Whisper, ears perked, peered through the wire lattice while Shout crouched warily in the cart's corner.

The cool evening air reassured Willie that summer was almost over. Survival was tougher for him during the long, warm days. Food rotted in the hot dumpsters and most soup kitchens only operated in cold weather. More people were outside in the summer, too. He hated their screeching eyes that yelled insults at him as he fished off the dock for his cats.

Sometimes Willie had to eat the raw bullheads or ocean perch himself, but today he was lucky. He had just got an unwanted crab untangled from his line when a chattering, shrieking couple offered him two dollars for it. He and his cats would have real cat food tonight.

Three tin cans thumped in his pocket as he wandered down the park trail looking for a bush to crawl into for the night. He would have to leave his shopping cart hidden somewhere nearby, but he had no choice. He picked up a newspaper from a recycle bin to use for a blanket and smoothed out the wrinkles, ignoring the screaming words until the eyes of the murdered man scowled at him. He stared at the words underneath, refusing to make sense of them.

Missing? This man wasn't missing. Didn't they know this man was murdered? Smacker had been killed by the same murderer. He crushed the paper in disgust, then Shout stood up on her front paws and glared at him.

"That murderer saw us," Shout transmitted to Willie's brain.

Willie looked around nervously. No one was here now, but Shout was right. That murderer saw them, knew who they were and would come after them next. They would never be able to go back to their home. He lifted the shopping cart off the ground to turn it around on the dirt trail, then began pushing and dragging it back downtown.


Willie peeked out from behind the dumpster as the crowd gathered around the sculpture, then nervously shuffled back to his cart. Whisper and Shout curled sleepily on top of a wool coat, but kept their ears perked. My cats know, Willie thought sadly. They know that Smacker's body lay at the base of the sculpture, dirty and stiff. Willie wanted to clean the soft, gray fur before he left it there, but he couldn't brush the dirt away from the dried blood. He had buried Smacker four days earlier, and the body had started to rot and bloat. He wished he could leave the cat in peace, but then Smacker's murderer would never come to justice.

Willie spent most of the night stuffing the old jeans and shirt with rags and attaching it to the sculpture. Would they know, he wondered. Would they know who he meant? The newspaper picture he had torn from the front page said the man was missing. Would he have to tell them?

Using all his courage, he stepped out, determined to tell someone in the crowd. Another step.

Smacker deserves justice. Another step.

No one would care about a cat, but they would care about the man. They would put the murderer in jail for killing that man, but only if he told them. And he would tell because the murderer's fit of rage had killed Smacker.

Willie's anger moved him ahead. He hadn't talked to anybody for years. He didn't know how long it had been since he left the hospital, but he had stopped talking to people before then.

People would ask him questions, he knew. Willie hated that. Gratey voices, shrill voices, faces right close to him asking, shouting words, nonsense sentences, but Willie would concentrate and he would tell them everything.

As he neared the crowd, people began to look at him with suspiciously narrowed eyes. Willie closed his walls and moved forward still determined to put Smacker's killer in jail. Panic tasted acid in his throat, but he stepped into the crowd and lifted his head. Then his voice choked him. The murderer was standing right there. Terror took him over as he stumbled backward and turned to run.

"He's just an old bum," floated out of the crowd. "A crazy old bum who likes cats."

The murderer is right there, Willie thought. Wearing a long sleeved shirt, he remembered. Yes, long sleeves to hide the scratches. The police will know.

He hugged a lamp pole and watched the crowd. Soon the police would take Smacker's killer to jail.


Detective Frank Carson ran his fingers through his graying hair as he surveyed the scene. During his twenty years on the force he had seen plenty of bizarre things, but he was still shocked by the endless manifestations of anger. Ragged old clothes, stuffed with more ragged old clothes were crudely tied together in an effigy. The torn newspaper picture of Chief McGuiness pinned on the bundle could have meant anything.

The chief was not a popular man. But why was that dirty, rotting cat corpse set in its lap? Did someone know more about the missing chief than they were letting on or was this random vandalism? A camera's flash snapped him out of his speculation.

"How about a quote to go with the picture?" Lisbet Durkin asked as she sidled up to him.

"Hello Liz. Must be a slow news day," Frank replied, impatiently brushing her hand from his arm. Lizbet's blue eyes and cupid's bow mouth no longer attracted him, now that he knew the kind of woman that was behind them.

"Now there's a suspicious looking character," she said nodding toward the ragged figure coming towards them.

"He's just and old bum," Frank told her. "A crazy old bum who likes cats."

"Likes cats? I wonder," Lizbet replied. "No sane person put up this display."

Frank pulled a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and lit it in one smooth motion as he studied the rag-wrapped sculpture. The blocky modern art was formally titled Apollo's Door, but the town's residents derisively referred to it as the tombstone, and with the effigy straddling a post, Frank understood the allusion. The sacrificed cat emphasized the ominous symbolism.

"Is the Humane Society going to get rid of that carcass?" Lisbet asked. "I sure hope this isn't some kind of threat to the chief."

"I thought you hated the chief. Or did you two come to some kind of agreement about the junkyard rape case?"

Lizbet smirked. "The chief sure made a lot of enemies on that one. If his disappearance had anything to do with that, you'll be up to your neck in suspects."

"And just what are you doing here?"

"Some crazy man dressing up art in the business district makes good press, if I could get an angle on the story."

"Carol!" Frank called to his partner. "Have you found anything else?"

The short, stout police woman walked over to Frank. She didn't take off any weight in spite of the chief's diatribes about fat women on the force. She tugged at the snug cuff on her sleeve as she put the pen back in her pocket.

"This wasn't just a teenage gang," Carol concluded. "There's something else going on here. I'm having the lab check the blood on the shirt. It might be from the cat, but I have a sick feeling that someone was stabbed in that shirt. And the cat looks like it was torn open by someone's bare hands, maybe three or four days ago."

"And the police chief's picture was tacked on the effigy?" Lizbet raised her eyebrows as she looked at Frank. "Could his disappearance have anything to do with this?"

"We also found this in the shirt pocket." Carol handed Frank and evidence bag that contained a woman's ring.

Frank took the bag from her and glanced at it casually. "I'll check it out, but it looks like carnival junk to me."

"Are you going to keep that rotting carcass for evidence?" Lizbet asked.

"Call the Humane Society, Carol, before Lizbet decides to make a front page story about dead cats in that rag she works for."


Frank stared at the torn picture of Chief McGuiness, then stuffed it back in the evidence bag. The donut store owner who had called the police knew about all the bums in town. Willie was crazy, but harmless. Was there any point worrying about it? Willie never talked to anybody so did it matter if knew what had happened to the chief?

"We've been assigned to investigate the chief's disappearance," Carol said. "That's putting the fox in charge of the hen house."

"I think we should behave in a professional manner, Carol. We don't need any more rumors started," Frank warned her with narrowed eyes.

Carol looked at him for a moment without replying. He knew what was on her mind, and she could cause a lot of trouble with the innuendo. Frank wondered now why he and Rachel had waited so long to report the chief missing.

When the chief didn't come home four nights ago, his wife, Rachel was relieved, not worried. But hiding his disappearance until yesterday had been a mistake. Now if something actually had happened to the chief, everyone would wonder why they lied about how long he had been gone.

Frank wondered if Carol would notice the ring was missing from the evidence bag. He leaned over pretending to look for something in the bottom drawer, then casually dropped the bag in it before sliding it shut.

"I'm going to talk to Mrs. McGuiness," he said straightening his tie. "In the meantime, I want you to check the chief's desk calendar and talk to everyone he had an appointment with in the last week."

Frank turned back as his intuition told him he was missing something. "And Carol, pull that file on the junkyard rape case from last September."


Frank fingered the ring in his pocket as he stabbed the doorbell impatiently. When the door opened a crack, he barely recognized the red rimmed eyes that gazed at him. He tried to hold back hurt and betrayal that had begun when they last parted two days before.

"I have to talk to you Rachel. Please let me in."

The slovenly robed figure swung the door open without a word, then leaned against it as it closed behind him. Her face was flushed with a drunken glow as she stumbled to the living room. Drawn curtains cast a yellow light on the overflowing ashtrays and cluttered coffee table. Frank reached over to her and turned her around with a gentle, but abrupt movement.

"Rachel, what is going on here? You have to pull yourself together."

Her soft shoulders heaved with a sigh. "Have you heard anything?" she asked.

Frank paced nervously around the room not wanting to rekindle the fight they had but knowing that unless he understood the truth about her feelings for her husband, and for him, that he would never be able to move on with his life.

His toe bumped against an empty vodka bottle and he was filled with rage against Chief McGuiness for ruining this gentle woman's life. But her slumped figure turned his pity quickly to resentment as he pulled the ring from his pocket and held it accusingly towards her.

"Where did you get that?" she asked, wide eyed.

"You tell me. You promised me you would never take it off."

Rachel blinked slowly before responding. "I left it at the jeweler's to have the setting adjusted."

Frank's eyes narrowed as he tried to decide if her bewilderment was genuine. Suddenly she lifted her chin defiantly towards him.

"And just what are you doing with it?" she demanded.

Rachel listened stone-faced as Frank described the rag effigy on the downtown sculpture, the cat's carcass and the newspaper picture of her husband pinned on the stuffed bag that represented the effigy's face.

When he told her the ring was found in the pocket of the shirt on the effigy, she stumbled to a chair. Although he didn't say the words, the ring's inscription, "Forever, Frank" hung like a dark cloud between them.

"So where's the body?" she whispered.

"What makes you so sure he's dead?"

They exchanged accusing looks.

"We should have reported him missing right away. I don't know why I let you talk me out of it," she said coldly.

"It's too late now. How could I have known he wasn't out on another drunk?"

Rachel rose from her chair and crossed the room to Frank. "I hope he is dead. It isn't too late for us. I know that we can forget our senseless quarrel. I love you, Frank, and you love me. What else matters?"

"It's not that simple, he replied. "Plenty of people knew that the chief was out to destroy me. Until his disappearance is settled and forgotten, I have to watch my step."


It was late when Frank returned to the office, so he didn't expect Carol to be waiting there for him with a file spread out in front of her.

"We got a problem, Frank. I found the junkyard rape case file on the chief's desk." Carol paused to take a sip of coffee from the brown ceramic mug clutched in her hands. "A page is missing."

Frank stood silently waiting for her to say more. Carol leafed through the papers again. "The page of victim's names and addresses has been removed. Of course, I already started to reconstruct it, but there is a bigger problem."

"Well, out with it," he snapped. "What's our problem?"

"There's a memo slip here. The chief wrote a note implying that you suppressed evidence."

Frank slumped in his chair. Suddenly he felt very tired. "So that was how the chief planned to get rid of me," he muttered.

"Oh, come on!" Carol replied. "He can't manufacture evidence just because you're sleeping with his wife."

"What makes you think I'm..." the rest of the sentence died on his lips as he met Carol's skeptical look.

"What did the chief mean by that note? What suppressed evidence?"

He shifted nervously in his chair. "I didn't suppress anything. An evidence bag was stolen out of my car and I have a hunch the chief knew who stole it."

"Evidence is missing and you never reported it?"

"He was looking for a reason to suspend me, and I knew the bag didn't contain real evidence anyway. It was just some junk that spilled out of the victim's purse, like a lipstick, a comb-- nothing to do with the rapist at all. I thought at the time that the chief sent me to the station with the bag to get rid of me, so I...." Frank clamped his mouth shut.

"So? How did the bag get stolen?" Carol shook her head in disbelief, then answered her own question. "You went to the chief's house, didn't you? You knew he would be at the crime scene, and you took the opportunity to pay a visit to his wife."

"I swear he set me up. You have to believe me." His eyes narrowed as he glared at Carol. "Whose side are you on?"

"Don't talk to me, Frank," she said coldly. "Talk to a lawyer."

Frank's heart pounded as he tried to appear casual. Perhaps he would have to round up Willie, after all. That old bum might be his only way out of the trap that was closing around him.


Word on the street was that Willie would only talk to his cats, but Frank couldn't ignore his instinct on this. Willie knew something and the way he was hovering around looked as if he wanted to tell people. A beat cop told Frank that Willie lived in the junkyard near auto row, somewhere in the acres of rusted and gutted steel hulls.

As Frank stepped out of his car, he heard a shout from across the street. Lizbet, wearing a cardigan sweater over her out-of-style mini skirt was waving as she hurried toward him. She is getting stranger everyday, Frank thought as he waited for her. Why was she dogging his heels?

"I hear you're going to talk to that crazy bum. Mind if I come along?"

"Where did you hear that?"

Lizbet smiled warmly, too warmly Frank thought, and winked.

"I can't reveal my sources."

"You can't come along on a police investigation either," he replied coldly.

"Now Frank, you know I'll just follow you if you don't let me come. Be a good sport and maybe I can help you."

"If you get in the way of the investigation, you'll be arrested. Now cut the crap and tell me how you knew I was going to be here."

She smiled wryly and pursed her lips. Usually he didn't care about the one way flow of information by reporters, but in this case, it irritated him. He hesitated only until it occurred to him that she might have more information about Willie than she was letting on.

"OK, you can come along," he said. "But the bum never talks so I don't expect him to say anything to me. I might take him into protective custody, but that's about as much of a story as you'll get."

"Good enough," she murmured.

Frank and Lizbet walked through the junk.

"Hey, over there," Lizbet pointed.

Frank swung around, but saw nothing. He circled an island of metal only to see more deserted junkyard. He turned to Lizbet, who he thought was behind him, but she wasn't there.


Willie hunched down in the abandoned Plymouth and stroked Shout's head gently. The rusted-out body of his new home smelled faintly of oil and sun rotted vinyl, but otherwise he and his cats could be comfortable and safe here.

Thoughts of dead Smacker were only a vague memory, confused now with movies and myths of his past. Only when he saw Smacker's killer cross the street and push through out the junkyard gate did the details of that night come screeching, clamoring back to him. Willie's eyes raced between the remaining members of his family. They would never be safe, Willie knew, until that killer was locked away.

Drawing on all the courage he had left in his ragged slumped frame, and drawing more from the soft, curious mews of Whisper and Shout, he pulled himself out of the car's shell and put one red rubber boot ahead of the other as he marched down the hill to demand justice.


Frank heard a shriek and ran back the way he had come. Just past a two-ton Desoto, Lizbet stood gaping at the chief's corpse. Frank got a whiff of the rotted body, bloated and rank from hanging in the heat for many days. Bile rose in his throat, choking him, as he watched Lizbet approach the body. He dashed towards her and grabbed her arm to pull her away.

"What are you doing?"

Her face twisted in pain as she hissed, "He's dead. I was just checking to see if he was dead."

Frank looked back and forth between the putrefied body and Lizbet, astonished for a moment before his attention focused on the intense gaze in the reporter's eyes.

Willie walked into the clearing and stood with his hands clasped to his ears, eyes squeezed shut, and began yelling.

"Killer, killer, killer." Then he opened his eyes, and dropped his hands to his side. For the first time in twenty years, Willie spoke in a normal voice. "You killed my cat. You're nothing but a dirty, rotten, cat killer." Then he turned and scrambled into the metal forest.

Lizbet backed away slowly as Frank stared at her wide-eyed.

"You don't get it, do you? You must have suspected he was the rapist, but you were too busy fooling around with his wife to care about solving the case. I figured it out. The witnesses wouldn't testify. If you had been doing your job, you would have wondered why three of the victims moved out of town. But I found out. I kept going over it in my head, again and again. I wouldn't let it drop. Then I remembered something a victim told me. Some of her personal belongings had been taken into evidence and she never got them back. But when I called the chief to ask about them, he claimed the victim was mistaken, an evidence bag with a victim's personal belongings wasn't listed with the other evidence. But I had photos from that night so I knew he was lying."

Lizbet turned her face, twisted with hate, back to the body that hung, impaled on a rusted metal rod. A snarling smile spread across her face as she continued her account.

"I knew there wasn't enough evidence to reopen the case so I came up with a plan of my own. I told him I would keep my mouth shut if he paid me off." A hollow laugh gurgled from her throat.

"He didn't know what kind of pay off I had in mind. It was easier than I thought to shove a knife in that black heart. But he deserved worse. I had to hang him up like that carcass that he was. Look at him now. That's the way I want the world to remember him," she said as she raised her camera.

Frank walked towards her with handcuffs as he noticed her sweater, where he had grabbed her arm, was turning red. He held her hand firmly as he pushed the loose, knit cotton sleeve up past her elbow and stared at the mutilated arm beneath. He couldn't tell from her expression if she was crying tears of pain or anger as she gasped, "No one would have ever found out if I hadn't tripped over that cat. If only I hadn't killed that damn cat."



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