Tabitha was glad summer was over. June had gone straight to hell and July and August hadn’t been much better. After nearly sleeping with a murderer and losing her boyfriend she ended up dealing with one of the hottest summers in fifty years--with no air conditioning. Her dog Fritz spent the summer with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth, while the cat, Thistledown Copperbottom, complained at the top of his lungs. “If you go another summer without putting in central air I will kill you with my bare claws,” Thistle promised one Sunday afternoon in mid-October. Things were finally cooling down, but he wasn’t done talking about it.
“Yeah, well, you pay for it--and the electric bill--and you can have it,” she replied, trying to ignore him while she worked on a painting of the old apple tree in the back yard, its leaves a swirl of color. The window was open letting in a comfortable breeze, and she was still wearing t-shirts on a regular basis. “Money is tight right now,” she continued, daubing some orange paint onto her canvas. “Money is always tight and we have an extra mouth to feed,” she couldn’t help but add. Fritz was a new addition after the death of her neighbor that summer.
At her feet Fritz was chewing on a ball, but he stopped to whimper. “He understood that,” Thistle told her.
“Sorry. But I mean it. We can’t afford air conditioning. I don’t know if we’ll be able to afford heat this winter. So you’d better hope the weather holds.” She’d told Thistle that every year for the three years she’d had him, but she wondered if she meant it this year. Everything was getting more expensive, and she hadn’t had a raise in those three years. “Maybe you’re a jinx.”
“I am no such thing,” Thistle said, getting up in a huff and stalking out of the room. Fritz got up and followed him, ball wedged in his mouth. Tabitha turned her attention to her painting. It looked like crap.
She sank down into a chair, brush hanging lose in her grip. Her brain was spiraling out of control, and the worst part was that she didn’t even know why. It wasn’t as though she couldn’t handle being single, she did it all the time. Her life had just grown as stifling as the heat of the summer, but apparently her soul couldn’t afford central air either.
“I hate being poor,” Thistle muttered as he slinked down the stairs to the living room.
“Me too,” Fritz bemoaned, following him. “Tabitha loves me, even though I eat, right?”
“Because I like eating. But I could stop, if it would make her feel better.”
“She was just saying that,” Thistle said. Tabitha’s laptop was sitting open on the vanity by the stairs and he jumped up to paw at a few buttons, bringing it to life. “Go play with your ball.”
“I loves my ball,” Fritz said, dropping it so it would bounce across the old and scarred hardwood floor.
Ignoring the cat hair all over the keyboard Thistle went to his banking site and keyed in his info. Since he was a cat he didn’t put much thought into money. It was something to play with, like a catnip mouse or Fritz’s disgusting ball. Thistle had discovered that he was very good at playing with money.
He had a Cheshire cat grin as he did an internet search then found Tabitha’s cell phone, very carefully keying in a number with his claw. “Mr. Chilly heating and cooling, how may I help you?”
“Hi,” Thistle said. “I’m interested in a price quote for a central air?”
Tabitha checked the seams of her stockings in the mirror the next morning. If she had to wear drab clothes to work, the least she could do was jazz things up. She put on a string of cultured pearls, slid her feet into a pair of retro two-toned heels, and she was down the stairs for her coffee before leaving for work in her boring black suit. “Nice shoes,” Thistle said as she opened cans of food for the animals while the coffee brewed. “Janine’s, right?”
Somehow, in all of the chaos of Danny being arrested, Tabitha had made a point of sneaking back into Janine’s house and snagging the garbage bags of clothes she had been promised. Behind Tabitha Fritz howled. “Stop it,” Tabitha told Thistle. “He’s been through enough--why do you have to bring it up?”
“He says your feet smell like her,” Thistle said, and this made Tabitha pause.
“Do they really?”
“Yes, but he finds it comforting. He likes that you wear her clothes.”
“Good.” She patted Fritz on the head and picked up his food dish. “C’mon Fritz. Out you go.” He skipped out the door easily enough and let her attach him to the dog run in the tiny back yard. Tabitha set the food down next to him and made sure he had water. Fritz couldn’t be left alone for too long without ripping things up, and Thistle promised that the little dog didn’t mind being tied up.
I never wanted a dog anymore than I wanted a cat, Tabitha thought on he way back in, but she didn’t mind, not really. She would be so lonely without them. You need to get out more, start meeting people. You need friends, Tabitha Silverstein. Not just talking animals.
Mr. Daws liked filing cabinets. He kept extensive files, about everything, in very pretty wooden cabinets with brass fittings in the outer office behind Tabitha’s desk. She was bending over to shove something into one of the bottom drawers when Mr. Daws came back from his morning meeting.
She could feel him hovering behind her. “Nice shoes,” he said to her. “Love the stockings.” Tabitha was glad she had her back to him, even if he was looking at her butt, because at least she didn’t have to hide the face she made. “Get me a cup of coffee will you?”
“Of course sir,” she said, straightening up and turning to give him a smile. He looked at her mildly behind his glasses, leaning on a cane that he didn’t really need. (After watching House on TV he had decided it made him look smart and dashing. Tabitha thought it made him look old.) “Anything else?”
“When you get my lunch, make sure they put enough mayo on my sandwich. It was a little dry on Friday.”
“Sure.” She could feel his eyes on her as she walked out of the room, and wondered at how he could be so casual in his sexism. She put up with it because she needed the job--she could deal with a lot to keep her beautiful old house.
Mr. Daws was (thankfully) back in his office when she returned. He had a computer--a top of the line, expensive laptop, but it sat closed and untouched on his massive oak desk, and he made notes on a yellow legal pad, as he had been for the last forty-five years. “Your coffee,” she said.
“Mr. Daws,” she said, thinking about central air and the heating bill, “I’ve been here a long time.”
“Yes. Who knew you would ever be able to replace poor Marta,” he said, referring to his old secretary. She’d worked for him from 1963 up to her death in 2003. Mr. Daws had gone through a lot of temps before he had found someone who could order his sandwiches perfectly and not mind him dictating every aspect of their dress.
“I was thinking, since I’ve been here for so long, and you are so happy with what I do here, maybe I could have a bit of a raise.”
“A ‘bit’ of a raise?” he questioned, not looking up from his notes. “Marta never asked for a raise.” Tabitha suspected it was because of the affair she had heard whispers about, but said nothing. “I don’t know. The quarter has already started.”
“Sir, I do think I deserve it.”
“Maybe next quarter, if your performance continues to be exemplary. And I do mean exemplary. You went home early once over the summer after all.”
“My friend died!”
“My friends die all the time,” he said, his attitude jumping from suave employer to crotchety old man. “Don’t try to get any sympathy from me there. It’s lunchtime. I’m hungry.”
It was very hard to keep her temper as she stalked out of the office and down the hall. Daws, Daws, and Billings was a large firm. They took up an entire floor of the downtown high rise, between the lawyers, assistants, secretaries, and interns. Even though Tabitha had been there for five years she hadn’t made close friends with any of the other employees. She wasn't the corporate type and had nothing in common with them. “Hi Lawrence,” she said as she passed Vanessa Daws’ assistant.
“What’s new Silverstein?” he drawled in a lazy voice.
“I just wanna kill Mr. Daws. The usual.” As soon as it was out of her mouth she regretted saying it. Death threats were not ‘exemplary performance’ she was sure, and Lawrence would tell Vanessa, who would go running to her grandfather to tattle like a little girl.
Tabitha took the elevator down to the ground floor, waving to Teddy, the security guy at the door, as she exited the building. “Stupid, stupid,” she moaned, dodging traffic as she hurried to The Sandwich Shop across the street.
The Sandwich Shop was a little slice of paradise after being cooped up in that awful office building all morning. There were tables at the window and a shining new cappuccino machine sitting on the counter like a trophy behind the cases of refrigerated salads and desserts.
Leticia was wiping down the cappuccino machine when Tabitha came in. She wasn’t ready to give in to fall, wearing a bright yellow sundress that seemed to glow against her dark chocolaty skin. She was a bright spot in Tabitha's day, always cheerful and ready to offer advice. It was like having a therapist that served food.
“Still can’t get used to it, huh?” Tabitha asked. Leticia and her husband had only owned the shop for two years and the machine was a sign things were going well.
“It’s so shiny,” Leticia insisted, turning to take her order. “The Boss’s usual,” she said, ringing up the tuna sandwich. “And anything for you?”
“A new job,” Tabitha said, trying to smile.
“I can do that,” Leticia said, looking at her with serious brown eyes. “No, really, I can. I need a second daytime person to help me out.” Aside from Leticia a tiny black-haired girl usually worked in the mornings. Apparently she had called off.
“I wish I could,” Tabitha said. At that moment Leticia’s cheerful demeanor and the shiny new cappuccino machine had a lot of draw. “I bet you would let me wear anything I want.”
“Within health codes.”
“And you wouldn’t leer at my butt every time I bent over.”
“I’d try my damnedest not to.”
“And I’d get raises?”
Tabitha smiled. “You have no idea how much I’d love to work at your store.”
“That makes two of us,” Leticia said. She leaned on the counter. “I can offer you management opportunities. Look, the truth of the matter is, Jerry and I are having a baby.”
“That’s wonderful!” She waved at Jerry though the window separating the kitchen from the rest of the restaurant. He and Leticia made a perfect team. They would be great parents as well.
“We’ve been waiting until the store was in the black. Well, we are, and while we’re not rich, we can afford for me to take some time off.”
“Order up!” Jerry called at the window and Leticia collected Mr. Daws’s sandwich, passing it across the counter to Tabitha.
“I probably can't pay you what you make over there, but I can give you a living wage. Think about it,” she told Tabitha. “If you’re so miserable…”
“Not that miserable,” Tabitha said. “Not yet. But I'll think about it.”
Back at the office Tabitha passed Vanessa in the halls. Vanessa was a year younger than her, but she had a hard look to her face that made her seem older. She wore her honey-blond hair in a harsh chignon and tended to look at people over the tops of her glasses like they were smaller than her. She was a younger, fiercer Mr. Daws in designer suits and heels.
“You be nice to my grandpa,” she demanded when Tabitha tried to pretend she wasn’t there. “He loves you, and you should have the decency to appreciate all he does.”
“Yes ma’am,” Tabitha grumbled, saluting with the paper-wrapped sandwich.
“I mean it.” Vanessa shook a French-tipped finger at her. “I’m watching you.”
Tabitha tossed the sandwich in front of Mr. Daws and went back to her desk. She took a deep breath and opened up a new document. She was going to write a resignation letter.
Okay. First chapter of Fat Cats is up. Enjoy. I'll leave 'Cat in Cougar Country' up for a few more weeks before making it available for download only.
The donate link has been fixed. I've signed up for classes and filed my financial aid and I'm not going to have enough to cover the whole semester. I know you guys can't come up with $900, but every bit helps.
Some individual notes:
Arielle: It is very short. I planned the series to be in a novella form, between 20k and 30k per story. The idea is that once I have 3 or 4 of them done, I'll stick them together in one print volume.
Fiona: Cats are rarely nice and never as cute and fluffy as they make themselves out to be. Anyway, Thistle has a good soul, but cat's are selfish creatures.
Slammer: Character or story depth? The series will be ongoing and the characters will develop. As for the story, there might be room for improvement. I know mysteries are supposed to be plot-driven, but that might be why I dont like them. I'm trying to develop a more character-friendly series.
Thrantor: I started the series wanting the animals to be the detectives, pulling Tabitha grudgingly along. With plotting Fat Cats I know that will not be the case, but Thistle and Fritz will solve a few of the mysteries. Cat in Cougar Country was my first ever mystery. I'm going to try to do better with Fat Cats. I've been reading and watching a lot of mysteries lately (I hate them) so that hopefully will help.