Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Subtler Form of Self Promotion — Of Cats, Mysteries & Murder

Einstein is the name of the cat in the Deets Shanahan mysteries. He, like Casey the dog in the series, is real. Neither of these characters, the only ones in any of my books based on real, live beings, solves murders. However Einstein committed a serious crime that has not been written about because I don’t write True Crime.

I had recently moved back to San Francisco and had taken a job with Levi Strauss & Co. The boss’s secretary was a nice woman whose cat had kittens and she was desperately trying to find homes for them. At the same time, a friend of mine had decided to move to San Francisco and found a studio in my building and on the same floor — at the other end of the hall. Seeing the photograph of the kittens the woman had given to me in the event I might weaken and save a kitten from orphandom, my friend decided to take one — the white one, with one blue eye and one brown eye. I reluctantly decided to go ahead and take a kitten as well, and picked the smallest, a big-eyed, coon-cat looking tabby on the gray-brown side of the color scale. Brother and sister would be neighbors. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The day came when the kittens could be separated from their mother and I brought them back home with me in a old shipping box. It had flaps that one could interlock in such a way as to secure the opening against escape.

At home, I opened the box, but only one corner, and the tiny gray cat jumped out, followed by his much larger sister. There were a few moments of orientation as the cats scanned the room and measured potential threats. But it became clear early on that the sister was a bit of a bully. No doubt her tougher attitude contributed to their relative sizes. Three of the four flaps at the top of the box remained secure; but in an attempt to hide from his tormentor, I thought at the time, the cat later to be named Einstein jumped back in the box. The white cat, later to be named Agatha, followed. No escape, I thought. The little one was doomed. However, Einstein re-emerged, pushed the flap shut and sat on it, thereby imprisoning his sister.

He became “Einstein” at that moment. Not long after, Agatha was carried in the box to her new home with my friend down the hall, where she seemed to be happy. And Einstein, free from the bullying, would make up for any food deprivation he had experienced by eating gigantic quantities of 9 Lives. He was a gravy kind of guy.

Unfortunately, a few months later, there was bad news. My friend’s mother had died unexpectedly and the need to rush home to the Midwest turned out to be a permanent decision. Agatha was back with me. Fortunately Einstein had modeled himself after Charles Atlas and Agatha could no-longer kick sand in the face of a metaphoric 99-pound weakling. Perhaps because she was no longer able to control her brother, certainly unable to take his food, frustration worked its evil ways on Agatha’s psyche. She began a campaign of destruction that, among other lesser acts of vandalism, saw a mirror pulled from a wall creating splintered reflections on the floor, a heavy, antique acid jar pushed from a deep shelf in the bathroom, which not only took strength but determination, onto the commode, shattering the porcelain and spilling water throughout the small apartment. Perhaps there was a need for a period of adjustment, I thought. But one afternoon, while I held her, she bit my lip— without any kind of provocation I could perceive — drawing blood. Now, it was getting personal and just a little frightening. Would I be attacked in my sleep? A quick bite to the throat? The vampire cat from hell!

Einstein looked at me as if to say, “I could have told you all this that very first day. We’ve got to get rid of her.”

A few days later, when I came home from work, the first thing I noticed was that one of the windows was open. Einstein sat in the middle of the small room and looked at me. I don’t know if cats can express satisfaction, exactly, but if they can, he did. Agatha was gone. I went to the window, the one window that didn’t open onto a fire escape, looked down the two stories to the alley beneath. No Agatha.

Did she jump and escape, commit suicide, or was she murdered and her corpse hauled off? Those were the questions I had on my mind when I went to sleep that night and remembered Einstein trapping his sister in the cardboard box on that first day of their arrival.

The promotion part? The “Early Shanahans,” (books one through four) originally published by St. Martins Press, beginning in 1990, will be reissued as trade paperbacks and as Ebooks before the holidays. Einstein and Casey play minor, non-investigative roles.

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