Friday, December 15, 2017


Encounter in St. Ives

I almost decided not to tell this story. No one likes to admit he's acted like a fool. Still, I had the best of intentions. Anyway, try not to judge me too harshly. Alma was gone and I was on my own. She was taking care of her mother, who was recovering from a serious injury that resulted from, well, basically forgetting that she was a little old lady with brittle bones. There, it had to be said. At the time this all happened I had been depending on my own cooking and my own company for a couple of weeks.


After successfully concluding a case involving a large number of fowl, egregious food safety violations, and foreign royalty*, I stopped off in a bar to relax. With Alma out of town there was no reason to hurry home. I chose a place I'd never been before, called the Unicorn Cutlet (obviously a story there**). It was a place frequented primarily by locals. Shopkeepers with their dirty aprons and worn shoes pointedly ignored servants and apprentices of various kinds (their clothing in even greater stages of disrepair), and everyone seemed to know each other. Even a gaggle of geese in the corner were on a first name basis with the servers and with the butchers' apprentices at the next table. Perfect!

Now I'm sitting at the bar, drinking a beer and minding my own business, when I overhear a fellow talking about something that happened to him on the St. Ives highway. I missed the beginning of the conversation.

".... So this guy had a whole crowd of women with him. He claimed he'd married them all. And get this, he said each of those women had 40 cats. Well, there is this crazy old woman on my block who has 13 cats, but everybody knows she's crazy. This guy was talking like it's perfectly normal to have more than three dozen cats. That wasn't the half of it! He also said each one of those cats had 40 kittens." At this point he stopped to take a drink and the kid next to him says

"Holy mackerel! That's like 120, what with the wives and livestock and all."

And then Phil, the bartender, chimes in. "How did they carry all these critters around? It's not like cats will stroll along with you. Did they have wagons? And why didn't he count the horses pulling the wagons?"

"No, they didn't have the cats with them, they just said they had them. Right, Mr. P.?" The young man replied, turning to the first speaker for confirmation.

"Course he didn't have them with him. That would be a herd, for which you need a permit. And everybody knows you can't herd cats. Getting a little dry here Phil." Mr. P. took off his battered fedora, ran his fingers through his hair, and pulled the hat firmly back down over his ears again. Phil handed him a fresh beer and he took a deep gulp. "And it wasn't 80 cats, must've been a couple hundred."

"40 and 40, that's 80." The kid says, and he drains his beer. The state of public education these days! It'll be kids like this running things in a few years, and then the whole city will really be going you know where in a basket.

I cleared my throat. "Actually, wives, cats, kits, and all, not counting whatever he keeps the animals in, that's 64,000." This pronouncement met with a stunned silence. "Well that's 40 cubed, don't you know. Nevermind, that's not important now. What is important is that this fellow seems to be guilty of both polygamy and animal cruelty. Where did you say he came from?"

Mr. P. turns to me and looks me up and down under the brim of his hat. "I didn't say. And who are you again?"

"Deadbolt. Hasp Deadbolt. I'm a PI. But that's not important now. What this guy might be doing to cats isn't right and needs to be stopped."

The kid broke in. "Lookit, Mister, no one's paying you to investigate this, so just let it rest. If there's anything to handle, the authorities can do that."

Well, it was true I wasn't involved. I finished my beer and left. But while I stood waiting at the bus stop, I felt a tug on my arm. It was one of the geese. Actually, it was all of the geese. But the one tugging on my arm introduced herself as Petunia.

"I heard what you said about the cats Mr. Deadbolt," she said. "Now I don't like cats any more than the next goose, but mistreatment of sentient beings is wrong. We are in solidarity with oppressed lifeforms everywhere. And were any of those wives underage brides? Forced marriage, feline slavery, this might just be the tip of the iceberg with this egg stealer. This kind of behavior is a natural outgrowth of the depravity of a hierarchical being-owning agrarian oligarchy, and the sheriff here isn't going to do anything. We want to help."

I guess it figured that socialism would go along with flocking behavior, but I had never encountered it before. "Do you know how to get to St. Ives?" I asked.

"I'm not sure," Petunia said. "Is that near Altoona?"***

"Never mind," I said. "Meet me out by the highway at midnight. We have some investigating to do."


I had not realized that Petunia intended to bring the whole flock. They were not professional sleuths like I am and they were noisy. I ended up sending most of the flock around to the other side of the farm on a fool's errand, looking for some of their wild counterparts, who I assured them wanted to join our cause. Petunia and I ducked under the single strand of barbed wire and went in.

I realized immediately something was wrong. The place was quiet, too quite. Too quiet for a farm that had 64,000 cats living on just a few acres. And there was only one barn. How many cats can fit in a single barn anyway? I'm not a farmer, I don't know the answers to these questions. But I'm certain it isn't 64K. Petunia was no help; she couldn't calculate the volume of a non-cubicle barn with both hands, er, wings. Behind the barn was a pigpen. There was only one pig in there, a young hog wearing a red bandanna around his neck. Before I could stop her, Petunia woke him up.

"Hey you," she hissed, "wake up."

He raised his head, shook it a few times, then staggered to his feet. He trotted over to the fence. "Who are you," he asked. Well, she spilled the whole story, invited him to join the revolution. He shook his head.

"I'm a confirmed capitalist. I think rewards come to those who work. If you gain wealth, it's because you deserve it. There are a few bad apples in the trough, but they are outcompeted by those who work hard, network together, and whose word is bond. But I'm a liberal. Thought about becoming a Unitarian at one time. I believe in your right to pursue your dreams. Of course, what do I know? I'm just a pig. By the way, my name's Freddie."

I was getting impatient. "Look," I said, "I'm getting impatient. We are here to find out if there's anything wrong on this farm. What can you tell us?"

"Wrong? Wrong?! I can tell you plenty that's wrong. Starting with me being stuck in this pen day after day, night after night. Let me out, and I'll help you any way I can." So we did.

"Solidarity," Petunia whispered.

"Enlightened self interest," Freddie whispered back.

"Whatever," I said.

Freddie showed us how to jigger the back door on the barn, and in moments we were inside. We looked around for a few minutes, and then I said "where are the cats?"

"Beats me," the pig replied. "I've seen them around during the day, but I don't know where they sleep. I do know it's somewhere in this barn, because I see them going in here every evening. I don't think I've ever seen 64,000. Maybe two or three hundred at the most."

Just then, Petunia said "look what I found." She was holding a bag over her head. It was about twice as big as she was, and completely stuffed with something. "What do you suppose is in here?" She asked.

"One way to find out." The pig pulled out a pocketknife and reached out to the bag.

"Don't touch that!" I hissed, but I was too late. As soon as the point of the knife touched it the sack ripped apart. Kittens shot everywhere.

Petunia dug herself out from under a pile of sleepy fluff balls. "What did you do that for? You broke the magic bag."

"Magic isn't real," Freddie said angrily, "it's just a fairy tale!"

"Oh yeah!" The goose shot back angrily. "And how do you explain 343 cats in a bag small and light enough for me to hold over my head?"

"How do you know how many there are? Who died and made you an idiot savant?"

"I've got lots of experience counting goslings. Goslings never sit still, you have to learn to count fast and accurately."

"Then that means he only has seven wives," I mused.

"That's right," growled a deep voice, "and what are you doing in my barn in the middle of the night?" A tall man with a big black beard, a pot belly, a t-shirt from the "Cock and Bull Café", and a pair of worn suspender overalls covered us from the front door of the barn with a double barreled shotgun. "And who are you anyway?"

"Sir, I can explain," I began, but Freddie jumped in front of me.

"Farmer Bean," he said, "it's all my fault. I cut the bag. But I don't think it's right for you to keep the cats in there all night. They should have some fresh air every now and then. And what about me? I'm stuck in my pen all the time, don't you think I deserve the opportunity to get out occasionally?"

"I don't have room for all these cats otherwise. The little women, bless their hearts, love kittens so, but kittens grow up to be cats, and they have more kittens and there are only so many mice to go around. I can't have them eating the geese."

"I have to agree with you there," Petunia put in, "but if you keep the people in chains, or in bags, they will rise up and overthrow you. Or at least, they are within their rights to do so." She had noticed in mid manifesto that most of the kittens had curled up and gone to sleep. Just about every horizontal surface in the barn had two or three sleeping cats on it. There must've been 150 of them on the floor around us. "I guess we jumped to unjustified conclusions," she went on, "is there any way we can make it up to you?"

Farmer Bean rubbed his chin. "Well," he began, "do you know anyone who can lay golden eggs? That would really help my cash flow. Farm equipment has gotten so expensive these days."

"I know somebody who knows somebody," Petunia replied, "but I don't know how she would feel about joining a free-market economy. Let me talk to her."

"I'm wondering about your wives," I put in. "I'd like to speak to at least one or two of them. Just to make sure everything is all right."

Farmer Bean scowled at me. "I resent the implications," he said. "But I'll make allowances, because you're an idiot." I opened my mouth, but shut it again. Maybe I deserved it. Something about being away from Alma for extended periods did something to my brain.

"Maybe not a total idiot," he went on. "They must be just about ready, let's go." He led us out of the barn, across the yard, and into the big house. There, six or seven women, I never did manage a definitive count, were laying out platters of freshly baked cookies and pitchers of milk at a long dining room table. One place had a pile of flowers on the plate, and I assumed that was for Petunia. We all sat down to a delicious home-cooked snack. But just then there was a knock at the door, it opened, and the rest of the geese trooped in. After a short pause to put out some more flowers everybody dug in. I apologized to Farmer Bean, told him that detective services would be his at no charge just for the asking, shook hands with everyone (unless I missed one of the wives), and headed home, dropping the geese off on the way.

I didn't hear from any of them again until a courier delivered a big festively wrapped box at the house the following December. A box with air holes. The label read "Compliments of the Bean family."

"Alma," I called, "what do you think about a kitten?"

The end

Source material:


*"Death of a king: fowl play or simply bad hygiene?"
**A horrific tale of love, loss, and cannibalism, for which the world is not yet ready.
***Thanks Walt.

Reprinted from Nursery Rhyme Noir --

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