THE BORROWED CAT
By D.M. Recktenwalt

My second mistake was in borrowing Irving the Cat.

The first was in accepting the job at all, but Jason and I go way back. I owe him more favors than either of us cares to count, and he pays well. I had both rent and tuition coming due. I could use the cash.

My lawyer friend had a client in the midst of a divorce. It wasn't a particularly messy divorce as such things go, but the husband had denied his soon-to-be ex-wife further access to their house and it still held a few small items of "great family significance" to her. Would I consider going after them -- for a fee, of course.

You see, I do rather special odd jobs -- retrieving "mislaid" items, "borrowing" things back for their original owners -- that sort of thing. And I'm good at my specialized trade, just the answer for those delicate situations that sometimes arise.

I said sure, and a couple of days later went out to look over the neighborhood and the grounds.

The house was a pleasant enough two-story Tudor, a mix of stone and timber and plaster set on a tree-arched street in one of those nice neighborhoods just off Stadium and Washtenaw. It was neat, well cared for, and like its neighbors quietly said "money." The front entrance and mailbox were partly screened by shrubbery, but the massive back yard was surrounded by a dry stone wall topped by woven wire. Contained within were a two car garage and both side and rear entrances to the house.

There were two alarm systems that I could see: one a regular burglar alarm, the other a motion detector and there were two very watchful Dobermans in the back yard. My local information, one of the many college students that frequent the city, advised me that they were trained to silent attack.

Great.

I made plans for a daylight foray. It wasn't such a foolish idea, really. It's a college town, after all, and most of the people home during the day are housewives. Repairmen are a normal sight.

I got inside the house, all right, through the front door. But the bell was answered and my every step monitored by a pleasant but firm cleaning lady. Where was that information when I needed it? I did my "telephone inspection," thanked her politely for her assistance, and left amidst smiles and good will. I even waved a pleasant good-bye to her little girl, playing with her dolls and the dogs outside.

I went home, had some supper, and considered.

The visit hadn't been a total loss. I'd learned a good deal about the layout of the house, for one thing, and about those dogs, for another. They were loose in the yard most of the time, whenever the owner wasn't home, and many times when he was. The owner worked fairly regular hours, was often out in the evenings, and barking dogs in the neighborhood seemed to arouse no suspicion.

That's when I thought of Irving.

There's nothing particularly notable about Irving. He's a big, amiable yellow-eyed tiger tom who lives in the neighborhood, sponging handouts and affection from everyone with equal aplomb. His scrounging techniques are supplemented by his considerable hunting skill. His personality is such that he'd suffer equally the rapture of a belly rub (he's the only cat I've ever met who will roll over and ask for one!) or the indignity of riding in a baby carriage. His bearing disdains his lack of pedigree, and his torn ears attest to numerous jousts with other toms and successful rounds with those most favorite of sparring partners, the local dogs.

Irving has a positive talent for exciting a dog to the chase, then turning it into a free-for-all rout which he invariably wins. He does it all, apparently, for sport.

Recently, Irving had been spending a lot of time lazing on the ledge outside my kitchen window, an easy jump from the fire escape landing. Since we were old friends, it was a fairly simple matter to pick him up on the selected night and place him in the box I had acquired for just that purpose.

As I had expected, the Tudor house was locked and empty, with the alarms turned on and only a few night lights glowing. I patted my pockets one more time to check for my tools, then took Irving gently from the box.

"It's all your show, now, fella," I told him, setting him carefully atop the dry stone wall near the house. The dogs were already there beyond the shrubbery, intently watching my every move, ears up and noses working. I retreated quietly to the deeper shadows and waited.

For several minutes, Irving simply sat, getting his bearings and looking idly down at the two dogs, the tip of his tail twitching gently. Then he rose, stretched luxuriously, enticingly -- ignoring the dogs, of course; that was part of the game -- and stepped daintily closer to their side of the wall, his tail curved in a high arc.

By now, the Dobermans had forgotten me and were watching the cat with the intensity of a manager and trainer at their boxer's debut. Irving purred softly, deep in his throat, and settled down just above them, tucking his paws neatly beneath him and draping that slowly twitching tail over their side of the wall. Slitting his eyes, he settled down to wait, teasing them with that waving tail tip.

Finally, in quivering frustraion, one of them yipped. Irving turned his head slowly, cocking an ear and opening his eyes. With great deliberation, he then rose and hopped, blithely to the ground, right under the noses of the two startled dogs.

It was a masterful performance.

The dogs yelped in unified surprise and delight, Irving sneered back, and the chase was on.

The diversion worked perfectly. I had plenty of time to hop over the fence, slip in the back door and disable the alarms, drop a few pieces of drugged meat into the dogs' bowls and collect the items I had come for - plus a few others that lay enticingly nearby. The husband had apparently done little to pack his wife's remaining things. There was a good deal of feminine clothing still in the house, and quite a bit of expensive jewelry just begging to be taken. It was a wonder the maid hadn't already slipped a piece or two -- or perhaps she had. I carefully selected only a couple of pieces for myself. With any luck, the husband would never realize I had even been there, and if he did, he might have a difficult time determining just what was missing.

Irving was gone and the Dobermans were waiting by the time I was ready to leave, but I had already checked their bowls before opening the back door. The meat was gone, and they were beginning to act decidedly sluggish, although that might not last long. I noticed that at least one of them bore a set of raking claw marks across his face. Irving, it seemed, had had a fine time.

I made it up and over the fence just ahead of the dogs but I still left behind in the grass a delicately linked gold and diamond bracelet, and on the top of the fence a few threads from my well worn work pants. I wasn't about to go back for the bracelet, and the pants would never miss a few threads more.

Once out, I paused in the shadows to retrieve my windbreaker from the shrubbery, then sauntered calmly down the street and away. Just another resident taking an evening stroll.

Jason found the unmarked package on his back porch the following morning. He dutifully put the valuables into his safe for delivery to his client, then distributed the work pants, the jacket, the old pair of shoes and the used surgical gloves among various incinerators in town. Shortly thereafter, I received an envelope filled with well worn bills and a note of a single word -- "Thanks." I deposited the cash in appropriate accounts, destroyed the note and went on with my life as a student.

Irving, being a traveling man, wasn't particularly missed. He had a habit of disappearing for days or weeks at a time, so no one worried overmuch when he didn't appear for a while.

A week or so later, as I was making my morning coffee, I saw Irving once again in his place on the window ledge. I opened the sash and invited him in for breakfast, which we shared amiably on the kitchen table in a patch of sunshine. I sipped coffee, Irving snacked on milk and tuna fish, his tail twitching. He looked magnificent. His coat was gleaming, the fresh scabs on his ears were healing nicely, and he smelled good. Someone had fed him well, and given him a bath.

A new collar, too. Every so often as he moved I could see it glinting through the thick fur of his ruff.

My instincts twitched.

Moving slowly so as not to startle him, I closed the window, then picked him up -- ostensibly to scratch behind his ears but really to study the collar more closely. He purred contentedly and batted my face with a forepaw, making my task more challenging, but not impossible. The collar was a beautiful thing, fine golden links studded with small, clear stones that looked like diamonds, something far more suited to a lovely queen than a rugged tom, but that hardly mattered. No question that Irving was wearing it, and unfortunately, I knew exactly where it had come from. The question was, did anyone else?

I steadied my nerves, vowing to never borrow Irving -- or any other cat -- as a helper again, and called the police to report finding a piece of jewelry. That, at least, would account for my fingerprints all over it. How can you take such an item from a cat's neck without touching it? But how had it gotten around Irving's neck?

Had some neighborhood child come across the bauble and idly attached it there in play? Had the cleaning lady found, then left it where her little girl could reach? Had a lawn service girl seen it in the grass and tucked it in her pocket before taking it home? Had the husband noted the glint in the lawn, and recovered it himself, fixing the clasp around the cat's neck in some kind of ironic revenge? I hoped I would never find out.

Irving, of course, never divulged how he came to be wearing that jeweler's confection. Eyes half closed as we sat side by side on the fire escape in the sunshine, he simply rolled lazily over onto his back and asked to have his belly rubbed.

Naturally, I obliged.


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