Author’s Note: I’m very pleased to announce I’m working on print and ebook versions of this story. It has now been professionally proof-read and edited, and I’ve commissioned new cover art – which is absolutely beautiful. I’m now deciding if I really can afford to buy a rather gorgeous professional font as the final touch. I’m just not sure…
More news to follow about extra-special print editions too!
Meanwhile , a longer chapter this week – enjoy!
Foxy lived in a first-floor apartment of a new-build tucked down one of the narrow roads between the main town and beach. She kept the interior minimally furnished, and lush with potted plants. A floor-to-ceiling picture window occupied one end of the living space, a banana unrolled its banner leaves to one side, a fibrous-trunked tree fern unfurled a cluster of black-stemmed fronds on the other. A flowering vine covered the back wall, globular clusters of waxy, star-shaped flowers hung among the jade-green leaves.
Instead of armchairs and sofas Foxy used outsize bean-bags and enormous cushions heaped either side of a low driftwood table.
It was also very noisy. Tim looked through the picture window down onto half a dozen light industrial units around a broad concrete apron. A white van was getting an engine tune-up while four men loaded a flat-bed truck with scaffolding pipes. Everyone else’s jobs appeared to consist of shouting, dropping things, and not answering the phone.
‘So this is where I hang out,’ Foxy said. ‘What do you think?’
‘It’s a bit of a racket.’
Foxy pulled the window shut. ‘What?’
‘Don’t you mind the noise?’
‘Oh no. There’s always something going on, things to watch, something to listen to.’ Foxy grew wistful. ‘It’s quite musical really, a bit like home.’
Today Foxy wore an open-necked white blouse with tight cuffs and a sky-blue cotton skirt with green darts. Her hair was loose and her feet were bare.
The crash of scaffolding poles, rattle of pulley chains, and the hoot of van horns didn’t strike Tim as even slightly melodic. Had Foxy been born in a breaker’s yard? Perhaps she was tone deaf. There were far more important things to discuss. Tim held out her jacket.
‘Thanks.’ Foxy swirled the jacket away into her bedroom. Tim glimpsed a room bathed in turquoise light filtered through drawn curtains, a sand-gold bedspread, a wardrobe of clothes.
‘These people–’ Tim began.
‘Would you like something to drink?’ Foxy disappeared into the kitchen.
Tim followed. ‘Foxy, these people, it’s important.’
‘It’s just that when I came to yours you mentioned a drink so I thought…’
‘No. Thank you. Listen to me, Foxy. There are some people looking for you, three women. They bugged my room. They’re dangerous.’
Foxy’s happy smile faltered. ‘You’re serious?’
‘Yes, I am.’
It was another one of those moments. Eye contact was involved. So was heartbeat and proximity. Pheromones almost certainly played a role. The cupboard door behind Foxy’s head drifted open. Despite himself Tim looked inside. The shelves were bare except for three tins of squid in its own ink.
‘We’ve got some things to talk about,’ Tim said.
Foxy looked down at her feet and wiggled her toes. ‘Yes, I suppose we do.’
‘Then let’s sit down and talk.’
They went back into the main room.
A cat, a rather beautiful Bengal, sat on the floor washing its paws.
Tim stared in astonishment. ‘That’s Mrs Woosencraft’s cat. What a piece of luck–’
‘Damned pests!’ Foxy cried.
‘It’s all right, I–’
‘Y’b’hyzn’t Ism!’ Foxy screeched (or at least that’s what Tim thought she said).
Out of nowhere a crashing torrent of water knocked the cat off its feet and washed it into the corner beneath the tree fern.
Just as suddenly the water was gone. Odours of salt water, seaweed and dead crabs filled the room. The echo of a gull’s cry faded and was gone.
Beached in the corner the cat cowered, a drenched and shivering fur-ball of soggy self-pity.
‘Sorry,’ Foxy growled. ‘Couldn’t help myself.’
Open mouthed, Tim looked at Foxy, the cat, and back to Foxy. ‘How did you do that?’
‘I– filled a bucket.’
Tim scanned the room. ‘Where’s the bucket?’
‘Under the sink.’ Foxy stretched. ‘That felt good. You can have your cat, I feel better now.’
‘It’s not my cat, it’s my neighbour’s, Mrs Woosencraft.’
Except it wasn’t. The colours of its coat were running, its muzzle whitening. Colour dripped from its fur into a pool of black water. A more familiar cat was revealed.
‘Morse?’ Tim whispered in disbelief.
Even for Morse that had been too much water too soon. His shoulders hunched in wet misery, he looked up at Tim and gave a piteously faint miaow.
Morse? The ground felt unsteady under Tim’s feet. Reality itself slipped and shifted. Of all the things that had happened recently this was the most utterly weird. His brain struggled to keep up, failed, and began to flounder. ‘That’s my cat. What the–? How the–?’ He turned to Foxy. ‘Whuh–?’
‘Do all cats do that?’ Foxy said.
It seemed a reasonable question. Tim had no answers, only questions of his own. ‘Can I borrow a towel?’
A few minutes later Tim held Morse wrapped cosily in a warm towel. ‘Where did that water really come from?
‘I needed it. It came.’
That didn’t make much sense. Tim scratched Morse behind the ear. The cat looked at him with one eye then burrowed down into the towels. ‘I don’t think he recognises me.’
‘Well, you didn’t recognise him. You thought he was Un-whatsisname.’
‘That was because–’
‘If I was painted a different colour you’d still know who I was.’
Foxy triumphantly snapped her fingers. ‘There’s your proof. Can’t trust a cat. Let’s put it outside.’
‘He’s my cat.’ Tim checked again, there was still no sense of recognition from Morse. ‘I think.’
‘I don’t like cats.’ Foxy paced the room. ‘Just not keen. Can’t be trusted, it’s as simple as that.’
Tim persuaded Foxy to sit down. The huge bean bags were low and comfortable. It was difficult to be agitated on a bean bag.
Tim told Foxy about Mrs Woosencraft, how she’d hired him to find her missing cat. Foxy was vehemently suspicious:
‘It has to be her. She sent all those cats. She did something to this one, affected its mind to make it think it was hers.’
It sounded outlandish, but he’d seen it for himself. Morse had been dyed to look like Un Deg Naw. Tim still felt a vague duty to defend Mrs Woosencraft. ‘She’s got angina.’
‘So why would she do it?’
‘You mean why do the thing that she obviously has done?’
Foxy leaned forward. ‘Because she’s a witch. It’s the only explanation.’
‘A what? She’s a little old lady who lives down my road.’
‘Definitely a witch. The ones who live next door are the worst.’
‘She bakes cakes and brings them round.’
Foxy gestured expansively. ‘How easily she lured you into her web of lies.’
‘She’s a very good cook.’
‘Tim, she kidnapped your cat and dyed it.’
There was that.
‘Even if she is a witch it doesn’t explain why she would do that and…’ Tim struggled with the idea. ‘And hypnotise it.’
‘To find me.’
‘And dye it to look like her own missing cat…’
‘To find me, Tim.’
‘Then pay me to find it.’
Foxy took hold of Tim’s ears and turned his face towards hers. ‘So she could find me.’
Foxy glared at Morse, now fast asleep in the towel. ‘Go and ask her.’
Foxy was right. All he had to do was turn up on her doorstep with Morse and see what she had to say. In his mind the silhouette of a little old lady raised a long knife over her head while musicians sawed jaggedly on their violins.
It still sounded mad. ‘She’s got a lot of cats, but that doesn’t mean she’s crazy.’
‘I don’t think she is,’ Foxy said. ‘I think she’s very clever. Witches usually are.’
‘But how? I mean, and why?’
‘It’s how people like her try to find–’ Foxy hesitated. ‘People like me.’
There it was again, that mysterious reference. Confused, puzzled, more than a little weirded out, and still with no idea where all that water had come from, Tim became annoyed. He stood up with Morse wrapped in the towel in his arms.
‘And just what does that mean, Foxy? Where exactly are you from? There’s a whole load of stuff going on – cars that aren’t missing, dangerous women in red dresses, a sack of odd rocks, dyed and hypnotised cats, my friend has vanished, and now you want me to believe Mrs Woosencraft is a witch. Maybe she is, but what has any of this got to do with you? Or me? And why involve Morse? What’s he done to deserve this? It’s like everyone’s got something to hide except for me and my cat.’
Foxy faced him. Tim had never seen her so serious.
‘Tim, do you trust me?’
‘I, well, yes. Mostly.’
‘As much as yesterday?’
Tim matched her doubtful smile. ‘Not quite so much, no.’
Foxy reached out, hesitated, then drew back. ‘I came here to get away from some people, some men. My home is a mess, people are desperate. I just wanted to be left alone. Trust? Well, it’s the same for me.’
‘Where is your home?’
She was on the verge of telling him then changed her mind. ‘Go and talk to your little old lady. Listen to what she has to say.’
‘And then what?’
‘Then I promise I’ll answer all your questions. You’ll see it all matches up and perhaps you’ll find it easier to believe me.’ Foxy opened the door. ‘I’m glad you found your cat, but I’m gladder you’re taking it away. You can keep the towel.’
Tim pulled open the door. As he did something glittered diamond-bright behind the coats hanging on the back of the door. Nothing could be left to chance today. He moved the coats aside and exclaimed in disbelief. Hanging on one of the hooks was Asklepios’ pendant.
‘Where did you get this?’ Tim took the pendant and shook it at Foxy. ‘I don’t believe it. When I told you about Asklepios and my dream you already knew.’
Foxy shifted uncomfortably. ‘Tim, I am so sorry.’
‘He needed this. No wonder he couldn’t find his way back to me. Why did you take it?’
‘He– He spoke to me. In my own language. I was scared–’
‘Do you know what this is? Yes, of course you do, that’s why you took it.’
‘I didn’t know he was your friend.’
More evasion, more deceit. Tim no longer knew what to think about Foxy Bolivia. He stuffed the pendant into his jacket, walked out and slammed the door behind him.
His head full of quandary Tim marched down the street with Morse wrapped in a dye-stained towel.
Gods, he thought, the more you know the less you understand.
The pendant in his hand was worth a small fortune. What it potentially could do was worth far more. He hung it over his neck and tucked it inside his shirt.
Even accepting that everything was connected, this was so strange he simply could not join the links together in his mind. The pattern was so big it was like the dragon of creation and you could not see it all at once. Was his mind too small to encompass it? If that’s the case he hoped that when he did discover the whole truth it would not burn too bright.
Right now discovering the whole truth was what he was determined to do.
Snug inside the towel Morse stretched, looked up at Tim and yawned.
‘At least I’ve got you back.’ Tim scratched Morse between the ears. ‘Kind of.’
If there was one thing he had learned today it was that you can’t trust anyone.
He scratched some more and Morse purred like a tiny sewing machine.
‘So you remember that, do you?’
Despite Foxy’s evasiveness and her theft of Asklepios’ pendant, her suggestion he talk to Mrs Woosencraft was a good one. Tim had thought of the old lady as a friend, she owed him an explanation for her bizarre treatment of Morse. Once he’d got the truth from her he would decide about seeing Foxy again. Maybe.
Lost in his own thoughts, he didn’t notice the cream Mercedes convertible parked in the evening shadows at the corner of a side street. Soon after he walked away the car’s sidelights came on, the engine burbled into life and the vehicle slid around the corner.
The walk did Tim some good. By the time he climbed the stairs to his home his mind was clear and calm, he was ready to do what needed to be done. Soon Morse was asleep on his usual blanket after a special supper of sardines. It was good to have the old thing back, more than good, there was an aspect of him that now felt complete again. Morse, however, was not the same. Tim had hoped familiar surroundings might have made a difference, but although Morse responded to affection he felt like a completely different animal. It became obvious when Tim took a shower. Morse appeared at the bathroom door, ears back, curious but suspicious of the falling water. He refused to come closer. That more than anything upset Tim. Then it made him angry.
He called Mrs Woosencraft. After a few rings she answered in the old-fashioned way: ‘Five two four two eight seven. Mrs Woosencraft speaking.’
‘Hello, this is Tim Wassiter.’
‘Hello bachgen. Lovely to hear from you.’
Tim kept his tone conversational. ‘I’ve got some news about Un Deg Naw.’
‘Oh goodness, tell me.’
Tim discovered the vengeful satisfaction of lying to someone he once thought of as a friend. ‘I’ve found her.’
For a breath the line was utterly silent. Then Mrs Woosencraft said. ‘Oh, that’s lovely, that is. What good news, I am pleased.’
‘She looks fine.’
‘I meant to ask, I was so surprised.’
‘I thought I’d bring her round tomorrow morning.’
‘As soon as you like. I’m an early riser, getting on a bit and don’t need as much sleep as I–’
‘About eight then?’
‘That would be lovely. I’ll bake a Madeira.’
Tim hung up the phone and sat back. Tension drained from him. He was back in control and tomorrow morning he’d find things out. Tomorrow he’d start to put things right. He was motivated, he was justified. This was what it felt like to be a true detective.
To be continued…