Cat Among the Macaws
When precious macaws are kidnapped, Bick and Co. are called in to solve the case. Can they do it before the birds are killed?
The following story is a stand-alone, but it features characters who first appeared in "The Figure Under a Blanket." You do not need to read that story in order to understand this one, but you might enjoy it.
"You're asking a lot of a cat," Bick said, licking the back of one of his paws. "There are laws, you know. Those laws say that a cat does not rescue a bird."
Donna glared at me from behind the van's steering wheel. "Felicia."
"He--" She jabbed a finger towards where Bick and I sat in the back seat of our van. "--is your responsibility."
I glared back at her, even though I knew that she was right. Donna had no patience for Bick, Larry lacked the grace to handle a cat, and Jean Paul got nervous whenever the cat glared at him. The worst was Marie, who couldn't look too closely at Bick without the talking cat undermining her purely-rational worldview.
I'll admit it: Bick made me uneasy sometimes too. The way he stared without blinking, the way he moved oh-so-silently until he pounced into the air like a hissing bomb. And, of course, the fact that he talked. I remember when Bick was just a kitten we found on the side of the road, when he'd only been capable of weak little meows, and somehow that only makes it more uncanny when he spoke in complete sentences.
"When your experiment misfired," Larry grumbled in Jean Paul's direction, "why did it have to be a cat?"
"It was not an experiment." Jean Paul ran a finger over the crucifix hanging around his neck as he spoke. "It was a ritual."
"The point is why couldn't we have a talking dog instead?"
There was a murmur of agreement. I expected to find Bick out of sorts, but his little face twitched into a smirk.
Bick bounded onto the back of the bench seat. "One wonders just what macaw tastes like."
"Felicia," Donna said.
I tried my best, knowing that the odds were decent that Bick would ignore me anyways. "Bick, please."
He raised an eyebrow at me.
"Just cooperate." I wanted to add, For my sake, but I didn't want to find out what it sounded like when Bick laughed derisively.
"There are laws," he repeated. "Predators eat prey. I'm a predator, and I refuse to be ashamed of that."
"We're almost there," Donna said. "And if he doesn't smarten up, I'm leaving both of you in the car."
I met Bick's eyes, but he only shrugged back at me before sauntering over behind Marie. "Marie, darling, you wouldn't mind if I ate one of the macaws, would you?"
She refused to look at him, so I grabbed him under his shoulders and hauled him back to our bench.
Of course he had a right to be cranky. We all did. After months chasing ghosts and ghost-adjacent hoaxes around the country, we'd finally returned back to our home in Kansas, ready for a break. I'd found enough mouse-droppings in our home to know that I could leave Bick behind and he wouldn't go hungry, and we all had fantasies about seeing our families and sleeping without any ghouls interrupting us. Everything had looked golden until Marie sorted through the stack of mail and found the letter from Arthur P. Darington Jr.
"Hey, everyone," Marie had said. "Listen to this..."
Arthur P. Darington Sr. had died five years previously, leaving a large fortune to his heirs, four children from four different marriages. However, there was a quirk. The Darington family home had a sprawling indoor garden that contained ten scarlet macaws. They were Darington Sr.'s pride and joy, and his will stipulated that if the birds died prematurely whatever remained of his funds--funds that his heirs were living very comfortably on--would immediately be handed over to a charitable fund.
Darington Jr. had contacted us because four of the birds had disappeared.
"Birds?" Bick had asked when he heard the news. "You want us to travel across the country immediately in order to save some birds?"
"He sounds desperate," Marie said.
"As much as I hate to agree with the entity of unspeakable evil, Bick might have a point," Donna said. "It's out of our wheel-house."
"They'd reward us," Larry pointed out.
Jean Paul had held his crucifix tight. "I don't know..."
So it had fallen to me to break the tie, and okay, I'll admit it. I'm a softie when it comes to animals.
Does that mean that I deserved to be the focus of everyone's ire when we finally arrived at the Darington estate?
Donna parked the car out front and we looked up at the brick building. It screamed money, and there were no signs of decay. I felt that I could let Bick roam the building without any kind of restriction, and he would starve before finding a mouse.
"Sheesh," Larry said.
"You wanted to come here," Donna grumbled.
"Who says I meant sheesh in a bad way?"
I couldn't help but see the contrast between the building and our little gang. Marie and Jean Paul looked fancy enough to be the help, but Donna was wearing far too much denim, and Larry's t-shirt advertised a tour for a death-metal band that happened fifteen years ago. I'd thought my shorts and tank-top looked cute when I put them on, but they were both covered in cat hair by the time we reached the building.
The wide, wooden doors swung open, and a young woman emerged. "Ah," she said. "Arthur's guests. Come along."
We were ushered down a hall lined with portraits. Only, none of the portraits featured a single human. With the same attention and care that usually was reserved for paintings of presidents or other heads of state, these artists had crafted picture after picture of wild birds. Some almost glowed with color. Others were muted shades of brown. And yet, in every case the eyes looked moist.
Finally, the young woman ushered us into a sitting room where Arthur P. Darington Jr. was waiting for us. His attention fell immediately on Bick.
Bick jumped out of my grip, landing near Darington's shoes. "Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, at your service." He said the last phrase while glancing over his shoulder at me. As hard as it can be to read a cat's expression, I thought he was trying to communicate irony.
"So... it's true." He glanced at the rest of us. "You have a talking cat."
Marie looked away, suddenly embarrassed.
Jean Paul cleared his throat. "Yes, it's rather a strange story, that one. You see--"
"Is it true that he's demon possessed?"
Jean Paul clutched his hands together. "We... can't be certain."
"Felicia," Donna muttered.
I scooped up the cat.
Larry looked around at the room as if he was measuring it. "Maybe we can talk about... the birds?"
"Yes, there's been a development since I sent my letter," Darington said. "We've received a ransom note, and frankly, I'm inclined to pay it."
Darington Jr. told the story while walking us to the room where the remaining macaws were kept. While Darington Sr.'s four heirs didn't particularly enjoy each other's company, they'd all been in the area when a member of the help realized that some of the macaws were missing. Darington Jr., the only member of the family who still lived in the home full-time, had felt like the others blamed him, while he wasn't sure that he could trust any of the others.
"There's Joan, the addict," he said. "There's Marcus. He's been trying to get into crypto-currency and failing. And of course, Janet, who is attempting to launch her own brand of vegan pet-food stores."
"Vegan pet-food?" Bick said with scorn.
"Yes, exactly." Darington did a double-take, as if he had briefly forgotten that he was speaking with a cat. "I'm sorry."
Bick said, "I don't trust her already."
"The point is, the three of them need the money," Donna said. "And as long as the whole fortune is on the line, the rest of you are likely to play nice."
"That is what I thought exactly. But I can't mention something like that, or it will just be, would you look at Daddy's favorite, trying to lord his favorite-status over us all again." Darington Jr. shook his head. "You know how it is."
We exchanged glances that said, as different as our gang might be, we all shared the fact that we did not know how it was.
Finally, Darington Jr. opened the door on a humid, steamy greenhouse.
Birds chirped overhead. I expected something like a museum exhibit, where each of the ten macaws would have their own cages. Instead, it was like a bit of rain-forest had been transported to upstate New York.
"Perhaps you can see how it escaped my notice that the birds were missing," Darington Jr. said. "Although of course I feel incredibly guilty about it."
"Seems like he's really beating himself up," Donna muttered.
"Allow me to introduce," Darington said, "my sister, Joan."
Addict, I thought before I could stop myself.
"You simply must find them," Joan said. "None of us have slept a wink since we learned that they'd been taken. Taken! Imagine that. All of this security, all of this... this--" She gestured at the glass structure that surrounded us. "--and the birds were taken!"
"Don't you have a craps table to get to, Arthur?"
"Joan, that's quite enough."
The rest of the afternoon proceeded in that manner. We met all four of the siblings, and each of them took every opportunity to snipe at each other. Arthur assured us that it was only stress bringing out their frustrations, while Joan rushed to inform us that they'd thought they'd be safer than this because they ran background checks on all the help. The smell of weed on Janet was stronger than even Larry after his longest sessions with his bong, and Marcus just looked like he was on the prowl for someone to punch.
"The way I figure it," he said as we were all served tea late in the afternoon, "if any of you are worth a dime, you'll figure out what security breach allowed this to happen. If we have to pay the ransom, we have to pay the ransom. But we need those damned birds back or the money is gone."
The tea-room--a room which could fit most of our house and that had more art than all of our neighborhood--got very still after that. Finally, Arthur showed us to the rooms he'd assigned for our use during our stay.
"They seem like fun," Donna said.
Larry scratched at the back of his neck. "Do you think Janet will share if I ask nicely?"
"Her coke?" Marie said. "Probably not."
"Coke is Joan," Donna said. "Weed is Janet."
Larry pointed finger guns at her. "Exactly."
"There is an evil aura here, isn't there?" Jean Paul said.
Marie rolled her eyes. "You say that everywhere we go."
After a somber nod, Jean Paul said, "We walk down dark alleys, don't we."
"Wait," I said, scanning the floor and furniture. "Where's Bick?"
Everyone glanced around them, moving away from dark spots from which Bick could emerge. Finally, Donna groaned, "I knew we should have left him in Kansas..."
We spread out through the building, searching for Bick. None of us wanted to get kicked out of the house, so we tried to do it subtly, but that was thwarted by each of the four half-siblings stopping us to gossip about the others as we went about our work. They must have thought this was just part of the investigation, and each was all-to-eager to share what the others would do with the ransom money.
Finally, I asked Arthur, "Have you seen Bick?"
"No, the cat. Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici. Bick."
He furrowed his brow. "Oh, no. I haven't. Perhaps you could check the kitchen. One of the maids may have put out some cream for her."
"Right, of course."
He showed me the way, and I followed his directions into a glistening white kitchen. There was only one dark spot in the kitchen, and it was the tuxedo cat curled up in the lap of the young woman who showed us through the door.
"He's a lovely thing, isn't he?" she said while stroking the soft spot right behind Bick's ears.
I couldn't help but smile. Bick could be a lovely thing. When he wanted to be. On his terms. "He is."
He opened a skeptical eye and evaluated me. Then he stretched, preened, and jumped away from her.
"She's the one," he said. "She kidnapped the birds."
The young woman stared at Bick, mouth hanging open.
"I smelled it on her the moment we met her."
"Oh..." I said.
She looked up at me, her eyes wide and looking far too innocent for someone who attempted a kidnapping and ransom scheme. Finally she sagged in her seat. "They're just so awful."
"The birds? Of course not. The birds are lovely. Far too lovely for those..." She gestured to the house at large. "They're awful people. They don't care one thing for the macaws. They could go extinct, and those people out there wouldn't bat an eye unless it cost them something. I kidnapped the birds so that the clause in the will would activate and the money would go to charity. I never expected them to consider paying the ransom, I just thought it would turn them on each other and give me more time to finish freeing the birds."
Bick didn't look at her.
"I suppose you'll have to tell them now, won't you? And it will be prison for me."
It didn't seem fair.
With Donna's help we came up with a better plan.
Larry found six legitimate security flaws at the family home and reported them to the Daringtons. Donna helped patch them up, while Marie and Jean Paul argued whether or not the house was cursed by the greed of the inhabitants. The fact that the inhabitants could clearly overhear them only added to their passion. Bick drank up several bowls full of cream, and while Marie and Jean Paul distracted the Daringtons, the young maid whose name I've omitted for legal reasons and I smuggled the macaws back into the home.
Well, the Daringtons agreed to pay the ransom to a charitable organization first. It wasn't as much as the maid wanted, but it came with no jail time since the police never got involved.
When we were packing up for our return to Kansas, Donna looked at me apologetically. "You were right."
"Bringing the cat along. He was more helpful than I thought, and I'm glad he's on our team."
"What? I said--"
"That's what they would say. The Daringtons. They only cared about the macaws because the macaws would cost them money, and you only care about Bick because Bick solved this case for us." I picked up my bags and headed out to the van. "I like Bick because Bick is a unique, living thing. Even if he didn't solve the case single-handedly, I'd still like Bick, but you wouldn't."
"It's not just about what's useful to us, Donna. The animals of the world--they don't just exist for us. Some of them exist for themselves."
Bick was snoozing on the back seat of the van, fully drunk on cream, a perfect illustration of my point.
"Okay," Donna said. "I'll try to be more patient with the entity of unspeakable evil."
The rest of us piled into the van, and I scooched Bick over so there would be room in the back seat for me. He looked up at me with one eye. "For your sake," he grumbled, "I didn't eat even a single one of their birds."
I scratched him behind the ears. "You are a lovely thing, aren't you?"
"Don't push it."