I came out of the anesthetic pretty fast, but by then it was over. Well, in one way. In another, it was a horrible afternoon, even with better painkillers than humani vets have. I felt every sort of bodily unhappiness: muscle cramps, nausea, and of course the big pulsing hurt where my uterus and ovaries had been. The only position I felt comfortable in was sitting bolt upright.
The District Sorcerer’s office was two floors down, so Pharaoh came up to see me. He left something fragrant smelling on the clean soft towel they had spread in my traveling cage. It was a catnip mouse knitted in eyelash yarn, so that it was as furry as a small exotic guinea pig. I appreciated the gesture, but not being able to move made it a present for some other day, not this unending one.
“Do you want to be petted?” he whispered with concern. I gave my head the tiniest melancholy shake, then changed my mind and reached out and tapped him with a shaky paw. His outer soul had already been busy, doing things that dulled the pain somewhat and warmed me up. So he sat and stroked me for a minute, stopping before I got overpetted, and turned on the TV–my cage was on the bed of a room meant for a human. We watched the cartoons I was following (thanks to the cubs) and I dozed off.
When I awoke, I was in bed, which was odd, but Sasha had gone out and gotten both a standard carrier and an actual cat bed, which I’m sure he couldn’t afford. I was wrapped up in the towel, my mouse safe nearby, and we were in the car, my bed on the floor in the back seat. The motion was the last straw, and I brought up some bitter fluid on the towel, trying to miss the actual plush green cushion of the bed itself and failing a little.
“Oh, poor kitten!” He reached his outer soul around and cradled me with it. “We’ll get you all cleaned up when we’re home, and that will be in a jiffy.” I moaned and burrowed myself deep within towel and g’nah and self-pity. Sasha continued his reassurances: “You’ll already feel worlds better tomorrow. Believe it or not, most of this is the anesthetic wearing off. My poor kitten!” I mewed, hoping to keep him talking, as it was distracting me from Me. He did so, failing to notice that when his conversation lagged I made a little noise just as a socially-skilled human would do.
We pulled up in front of the house and Sasha whistled through his teeth. “Well, will you look at that!” I couldn’t. “Seems like Little Miss Truant has a mama.” This seemed unfair. Not that she had one, but that my unwellness was going to spoil my enjoyment of the forthcoming soap opera.
“Little Miss Truant” was a pretty little girl of 12 or 13 or so, who had just moved into the neighborhood at the beginning of the school year. She lived in the Harvard graduate housing that was across the street from us, but we had never before seen a parent. We saw plenty of her, though–running about at all hours of the day and night. Sasha had once buttonholed her and asked her why she wasn’t in school?
“I’m homeschooled,” she said with a roll of her huge dark eyes, and bounced off on her adult-free way. It had been making Control Freak Van der Linden insane, to everybody’s amusement. I heard Terry telling Eamon that the neighborhood was safe enough, and the child still at the stage of being happy to play alone by herself, amusing herself by watching squirrels and the occasional raccoon, so neither her person nor her character were in particular danger. But still Sasha fretted, and knowing what the tiny victims in his morgue had suffered, nobody had much heart to catechize him on it, not even Terry.
When we pulled up in the driveway, Sasha put me on the hood while he pretended he needed to open the front door ahead of time, all the while peering at the interaction between the little girl and her mother–it had to be her mother; they looked like a shampoo ad, both golden-skinned and bedspring dark curls. It seemed to be a probably well-deserved scolding. The girl broke off and ran over to me.
“What’s the matter with Eureka?” she called to the horrified Sasha, who was about to draw his weapon or something at seeing my invalid self so approached.
“She’s just coming home from the vet. She got spayed this morning. How do you know her name?” Sasha was in full-blown cop mode.
“Oh, Eureka’s just what I call her. I’ve only seen her in the windows. She’s a Russian Blue. Dorothy had a blue kitten that she named Eureka because she found her. That’s what Eureka means, you know.” The child paused and they made eye contact, possibly picking up on Sasha’s what-the-HELL.
She sighed. “Dorothy from Oz? In the books? You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you? There were other books.”
“Dorothy’s Eureka fell in a tub of bluing. And I found my Eureka, so I guessed it was appropriate.” Now it was her turn for a little what-the-HELL. They paused, appreciating each others’ literacy. I was mystified. I can read very basic things, but the only Oz I knew about was the movie. Which I suppose I also knew came from a book. But that was it.
Then: “You read Oz,” she said with satisfaction.
“Yup. And I have my clothes in an honest-to-john wardrobe. Idjits sold me one at a garage sale for $30. Solid in the back, but I check it every morning.” He did, too, giving it a ritual rap. It wasn’t the sort of private weirdness I’d expect Sasha to share, and I didn’t get the reference for years until the Narnia movie came out on DVD.
The little girl’s eyes sparkled. She held out her hand. “Rita Tarragon.”
“Special Agent Dr. Alexei John Van der Linden.” I could tell he was giving her the entire thing to thrill her, and it did.
“Oh no you are not. Are you really?” she hoped. Sasha pulled out his badge and she jumped and shrieked and grabbed it for closer examination, handing it back with her heart in her face.
“Do you have a gun?”
“Yup.” He spread his coat and turned a little to the side, so she could see it lurking in its holster in the small of his back.
“You don’t . . . What do you investigate?”
Sasha grimaced. “That, my dear Ms. Tarragon, is another tale for another day. I want to get Eureka out of the cold, and then I’d like to be introduced to your mother.”
“She’s not dating anybody since the divorce,” Rita warned.
“All good. I’m a) taken and b) gay, so she’s twice safe. All right?”
“All right! Mom! Moooommmmm!!” She barreled into the woman, who’d been slowly approaching this odd conversation, worry etching her otherwise pleasant-enough face. Sasha took the opportunity to do as advertised and carry me into the house, where I tried in desperation to make it to my pan before losing all dignity, but what my bladder wanted as a gallop came out as a limp. Devon picked me up by the scruff and carried me into the office loo–unceremonious, but at the moment it was the only way to transport me that didn’t involve bumping my stitches.
Afterwards, I sat up very straight on Terry’s office rug and strained to hear the conversation outside, but to no avail. I could feel Sasha gathering himself up in a fit of self-righteousness. Behind me, Pharaoh faded into the office gatepoint with a flurry of disturbed air. I caught his eye and pointed with a wobbly paw toward the window. He picked me up with great care and deposited me on the window seat, and when he saw the two small and irate forms facing off, cranked open a side panel of the window so he could eavesdrop in comfort too. (He could have fixed us both up in surround sound with his sorcery, of course, but that would have been cheating.)
“–I appreciate your concern, Dr. Van der Linden, but I’ve filled out the necessary permissions and the way I homeschool my child is my business.” The woman sounded like your basic Harvard grad student, albeit flavored with a New York only a little less classy than Terry’s.
“And the way you let her run loose without supervision is mine. Look, Ms. Tarragon, this is a very safe neighborhood, but that sort of “safety” applies to home invasion and ordinary street crime. I’m not trying to scare you–”
“Yes, you are. Rita could be snatched up at any moment by some opportune drive-by on her way home from traditional school. I’m not going to raise my child in a canvas bag.” Her voice was beginning to break, but her outer soul warned that she was a rage crier, and not backing down any time soon.
“Maybe you’d better get out there,” I muttered to Pharaoh, but he gave me a meaningful look and shrugged. “Damn, forgot you can’t really understand me. But you can understand that, can’t you? It’s getting out of hand.”
Sasha was trying to keep his temper. Sort of trying. “God’s wounds, woman, I have a little girl downtown who could be Rita’s sister!” Uh-oh.
“And where is downtown, Dr. Van der Linden? Who are you anyway, Child Protective Services?”
“Downtown is my morgue in the South End, and I’m FBI. Serial child murders. Screw ‘Opportune Drive-by Joe;’ anybody in this eight-block area knows that between eleven and four, Rita is out gallivanting with nary a mama so much as calling her name. She’s at the age, Ms. Tarragon, and I really think the racist media has lulled you into a false sense of security by only promoting the blonde ones. Most of the children who vanish are children of color–because the predators know the hunt won’t be as frantic.”
She had been trying to butt in for a sentence, but Sasha could talk down defense attorneys, so she slammed a fist on the hood of the car, making him snort. “Wait–what do you mean, between eleven and four? Eight-block area? Rita checks in with me online every hour, and she never goes outside this street unless I send her to the store; or are you going to call in on me for that?”
Sasha barked his short little laugh, the one that meant trouble. “Madam, if I can trouble you to come inside, I can show you proof of what I say. I’ve been meaning to track you down for two weeks now for this conversation, and you’re damned lucky I’m old-fashioned enough to have it with you instead of with CPS.”
This was something of a lie; Sasha had at first muttered, “Gonna call CPS,” and Terry had lost it, much to Sasha’s surprise–his partner had heard too many horror stories while in the pen.
“If she’s a bad mommy, then I am the last person on Earth to stop the wolves from tearing out her throat, but if she’s not, for God’s sake, Sash, bring your little crusade to her door first.”
So Sasha had set the cubs to kiddie-tracking. This reassured him that she was safe by also making sure that nobody else was out tracking her too. By now, he had a whole album’s worth of photos of Rita in the vacant lot, Rita playing in the Div School yard–right under Dante’s windows; in fact he had been the first person to notice her–and most damningly, Rita talking to a wide variety of strangers who had no idea that they themselves were being scrutinized.
But Mom didn’t have any idea either. Now her small plump jaw was set. “Doctor, you’re on. What sort of proof? Rita? Rita! You come here this instant!”
We ducked our heads back inside the house and Pharaoh opened the office door a crack after they all had passed into the living room. Rita saw the movement from the corner of her eye, and was about to come investigate, but Pharaoh became more adult than I had ever seen him and snapped, “Eureka is in here and needs to rest. You, I believe, were asked to stay with Mum and Dr. Van der Linden.” Her eyes widened with dismay and she spun a u-ey on one heel. He muttered to me, “That’s the voice I use on the Sorcerer of Philadelphia.”
Voices were a little muffled from the human perspective, and Pharaoh gave in and tossed out an unscrupulous spell to let him hear–as well as the cubs next door, seeing as it had been their hard work. Out in the living room, they had all settled on Auntie Rosa’s lovely leather furniture; I could ping the Tarragons trying not to gawk at the house and feel small. There was a pause; I presumed Sasha was opening up his photo collection.
He told her what he had done. “As it happens, my partner has bodyguards, being the rich and famous type who gets threats. When the boys were just hanging around eating their heads off, I sent ‘em out to keep an eye on Rita.”
I could hear the tiny fwips as he dealt the photos out on the large glass coffee table. Ms. Tarragon gasped.
“Rita, who are these people? And what were you doing there? What part of ‘don’t talk to strangers’ didn’t you understand? Who is this man?” Whoever he was, he was the straw that broke the camel’s back, because Sasha whistled for a cub, while doing the more usual tweak with his outer soul. I didn’t know why he bothered to whistle, because Ms. Tarragon was Th’nashi too. Putting on the dog? Didn’t seem like him. I forgot about it, because Ms. Tarragon was crying, and the cub was coming into the office to get some ice water from the wet bar and a box of tissues too.
Meanwhile, Sasha continued, albeit in a gentler tone. “That guy’s name is Moe Khan, and he looks scruffy because he’s been a merchant marine most of his life and does yard work as a hobby. He’s harmless. But this guy,” fwip, is a different story. His name is Professor Dudley Retsil Carver II, and he has a chair at the Div School. He’s allowed to teach there, but his 2002 kiddie porn conviction won’t let him go back to the private school he was at beforehand. His granddaddy has thrown Harvard a whole truckload of money, so his CORI got overlooked, I guess.”
Rita gasped. “That guy? He’s really nice! I used to see him every day. In fact, he was going to bring in his first edition Alice in Wonderland for me to look at, but I haven’t seen Duds in over a week.”
Sasha heh’ed. “I believe one of Dr. Carver’s colleagues had a discussion with him. I’d hate to venture the guess that the colleague also being the size of a linebacker may have had something to do with it. I’m sure Houghton Library right here at Harvard has all the first editions you’d like to see, if you behave in the room with the quiet and the white gloves.”
Pharaoh chuckled, tousling my ears. “Bully Fabrizio has his uses. He earned the ‘Bully’ when we were at Congreve–boarding school–because he used to bully the bullies.” I decided I hated Dante a little less, and wished I’d been there.
Out in the living room there was quiet, broken by Ms. Tarragon’s sobs. After a minute, Rita proved she wasn’t a dummy and began to cry too, in the wild way only a half-grown human kitten can when she’s had a long day and too much had happened.
It had been a long day. I couldn’t hold up my end any more. The big dramatic climax had been passed with the humans as I slid into unconsciousness. Somewhere later I felt Terry come home from class. Pharaoh slid out to give him the TV Guide blurb on it all.
But it wasn’t quite over.
“Lynn? My God, Tarragon, this is your kid we’re talking about?”
“Terry? My God, Riverly, these are your people?”
They know each other, I thought with what I had to think with. But I faded out anyway. Damn surgery. You can keep it.