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Book Jacket

0736919678
Trade Paperback
pages
Jul 2007
Harvest House Publishers

When the Cat's Away

by Gilbert Morris

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

One

Enola Stern swerved the Hummer violently across the highway to avoid hitting a hammerheaded yellow cat that was meandering across the beach road. “Dumb cat,” she muttered. “You’re going to wind up fl at as a Frisbee!”

Glancing toward the white sands of the beach, Enola took pleasure in the sight, as she always did. She had endured fi ve freezing winters in Fargo, North Dakota, before fl eeing to the white sands of the Alabama Gulf Shore. Now she soaked up the vision of the sugar sands, the sparkling aqua-green waters of the Gulf, and the blue sky arching overhead dotted with puff y white clouds—a perfect June day.

A frown touched Enola’s face as she saw the construction cranes in the distance. Th ey meant new condos were going up, and like many who had come to the world of white sand beaches, she hated the so-called “progress” brought on by the infl ux of visitors. She suddenly wished she had lived along the beach when there were only a couple hundred people and a few houses in the town of White Sands, but that day was gone forever. Now progress and ugliness were fast overtaking the Alabama Gulf Coast, once the bestkept secret in America. It was now called the Redneck Riviera. All summer the young kids—loud, crude, and mostly drunk—fl owed into the beach. In the winters the snowbirds rushed down from Michigan and other northern states. Th ey were all older people who made life hard for the natives. Groups of them would circle their baskets in the middle of the aisle at Wal-Mart and hold meetings, making it impossible for the natives to get through. Enola suspected that when the snowbirds bought a new car they put the turn signal on and left it on until they traded it in on the next model.

Putting the snowbirds and the loud, vulgar kids out of her mind, Enola pulled up in front of a house set well back from the beach. She smiled as she remembered Zophia Krizova, the previous owner of the lovely home. Enola had met Zophia when she first started her veterinary practice, and the old woman with all her pets had been a gold mine for a newcomer opening up a practice in a strange town. Zophia had loved animals more than anyone Enola had ever seen, and that love had brought the two women close. She thought suddenly of how sad it had made her when the old woman had started going downhill, and she remembered that her greatest fear had not been of death but of what would happen to her many pets when she died. It had been Enola who had suggested that she have it written into her will that the heirs of her estate would be required to take care of the pets royally or lose their inheritance.

By the time Zophia had died, the iron-clad will had been drawn up, witnessed, and signed. In order to inherit the estate the heirs would have to do two things: live in the house and take care of the animals. If they refused either of these, the estate would go to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Enola got out of the car, smiling broadly as she thought of the two heirs of Zophia’s that had been located. It amused her to think that the animals nside the house were far better adjusted than their new caretakers: Mary Katherine Forrest and Jacob Novak. By now, Enola had come to think of them as simply the Odd Couple. It would have been hard to find two people more mismatched than these two, who were forced by the terms of the will to share the house in order to keep the estate. Mary Katherine Forrest, known to her friends as Kate, was an attractive twenty-nine-year-old widow raising a twelve-year-old son, Jeremy. Kate was a dedicated Christian who doted on animals but was probably the worst housekeeper Enola had ever seen.

Jake Novak was the other heir. He was twenty-nine, the same age as Kate, but their age was the only thing the two had in common. Jake was a former Delta Force soldier and later a homicide detective in Chicago. He was also a wannabe novelist, a wonderful cook, and a meticulous housekeeper— and could not stand animals.

Enola knocked on the door, and as she waited she recalled how Jake and Kate had made a separate peace—Jake living in the upstairs apartment, Kate and Jeremy on the ground floor. The inhabitants of White Sands, of course, were adept at gossip and were convinced Jake and Kate were “a couple” in every sense of the word. In truth, the two heirs got along like cats and dogs.

The door swung open, and Kate smiled, saying, “Come in, Enola. I’ve been waiting for you.” Kate’s long auburn hair was tied back in a ponytail. She had a widow’s peak, deep-set gray-green eyes set in an oval face, and lips that were wide and very full. She was full-figured with long legs and a rather tiny waist.

Enola stepped inside and said, “Is this a bad time to do the inspection?” Once a month Enola was charged by the will with checking on the health of all the animals. During the time that Kate and Jake had lived in the house, the vet had become good friends with both of them.

“It’s a bit hectic, Enola. Did you know that American Morning’s sending a crew here to interview Ocie?”

Ocie—Oceola Plank—was an eighty-five-year-old alcoholic Jake had saved from jail by taking him into the house. Jake had seen a tattoo on Ocie that identified him as a member of the Army Rangers, and Jake had then discovered that the old man had been a friend of his own father, who had landed at Normandy. The two had been part of the team that had scaled a cliff under fire. He had also found out that the old man had won the Medal of Honor.

“No. All I heard is the good news—that he won millions of dollars in the lottery.”

“He did. I still can’t believe it. I’m a little worried, though. Ocie’s not here, and the television people are coming soon.”

“Where do you think he is?” Enola asked as the two walked into the spacious living area.

“I’m sure he’s out getting drunk again, but I don’t know what I’ll do if those TV people come and he’s not here.”

“Well, he’ll probably show up, or you might have to go get him out of the drunk tank. Kate, let’s start with the cats, shall we?”

“Sure.” Kate glanced over to the sofa and called, “Come here, Cleo.”

A beautiful long-haired Ragdoll feline came at once to Kate’s call. She looked up at Kate and her questioning meow sounded like “Wow!” and the look on her face almost certainly seemed like a grin.

Enola, as always, was amused. “I never saw a cat that could grin. She’s happy.” She reached down and picked up the Ragdoll, who immediately relaxed. Enola put the cat over her shoulder and said, “Ragdolls are the sweetest cats in the world. All they want is lots of loving.”

“She’s a sweetheart all right,” Kate agreed.

Enola checked her and announced, “Well, she’s in fine shape. I wish all my patients were as healthy as you, Cleo.” She put Cleopatra down and then turned to face the other feline, who was backed up against the wall. “And now for you, Jacques.” Reaching into her bag, she pulled out a pair of heavy gloves. They were thick canvas with long gauntlets that went clear up to her elbows. “Jacques, don’t you give me any trouble, you hear me?”

The enormous black cat facing her didn’t have a white hair on his body. He weighed close to twenty-five pounds, and he hissed at Enola, his body language saying as plainly as if he could speak, Come on, Doc, you just lay your hand on me. I’ll lay you open to the bone!

“Now Jacques, you stop that,” Kate said. She went over at once and put her hand on Jacques’ head. “Be a sweet baby now.”

Sweet baby? I’m a Savannah! Savannahs aren’t sweet babies. Don’t you understand I’m half wildcat?

Indeed, Savannahs are half wildcats. They’re bred by crossing an African serval, an actual wildcat, with an American domestic. The result is a huge cat…declared illegal in some places.

“No wonder Jake calls him Jacques the Ripper,” Enola said as she approached the cat, holding her hands out widely. “Come here, and don’t you claw me either.”

You come here, baby. I’ll show you what it’s like to get opened up! Kate reached out and held Jacques’ back while Enola looked him over quickly.

“He’s disgustingly healthy,” she said, “and as mean and hateful as ever.”

Jacques spat at her and made a pass in a motion quicker than light. His claws caught in her glove, and Enola jerked it loose. “No wonder Jake can’t stand you.” She looked over at Cleo, who was waiting to be petted, and leaned down and stroked her smooth fur. “Kate, have you thought of entering Cleo in that cat show coming to White Sands?”

“What cat show?”

“Why, the International Cat Show’s going to be held here this summer. Didn’t you know? I think it’s in a week or two. It’s been in all the papers.”

“No, I didn’t read about it, but I don’t think I’d want to do a thing like that.”

“Cleo’s registered. You’ve got the papers, so she’d be eligible.”

Suddenly Kate laughed. “I think I’ll enter Jacques. That ought to be interesting watching a judge try to go over him.”

“No, Jacques doesn’t have a chance. I doubt if there’s even a category for Savannahs, but Cleo would probably win in her category.”

Jacques suddenly made a pass at Enola’s legs, but Kate reached down and pulled him back. You don’t see any medals on her, do you? Jacques hissed. I’m the one with the medal.

Indeed, around Jacques’ neck was a thin silver chain with a small medal that said World’s Greatest Cat Detective. Jacques the Ripper had been instrumental in solving at least two murders that had taken place in White Sands, and the newspapers had made much of it.

The cats’ examinations finished, Kate walked over to the window and looked out. “I sure wish Ocie would come back. I don’t have any way to call those TV people and tell them he’s not here.”

“Well, I guess the money’s changed Ocie a lot,” Enola said. She walked over and picked up the resident ferret. “Hello, Abigail. How are you?”

Like all ferrets, Abigail was lean and flexible. She loved to be held, and she cuddled herself up against Enola’s neck while the vet examined her.

“I’m just sure Ocie’s gone off to get drunk as he always does,” Kate said again.

“Well, most winners go a little nuts,” Enola said. “Buy a fleet of sports cars and a mansion in Spain…things like that. Ocie ought to be happy with all that money.”

“Well, he’s not. He’s still drinking just as much as ever.”

“What’s he doing with his money?”

“Well, he’s having a house built for the Brices. He’s willing to do that, but he says he won’t spend any money on himself.”

Enola finished a quick inspection of Abigail and said, “She’s fine. So what in the world is he going to spend that money on?”

Kate shook her head. “He says God’s going to save him some day, and then he’ll use the money in whatever way God tells him to.” She bit her lip and said, “He makes me furious, Enola, with his hyper-Calvinist nonsense.”

“What’s ‘hyper-Calvinist’?” Enola was half Jewish and half Sioux Indian, a strange mixture, but one that had produced a beautiful woman. She had jet-black hair, an olive complexion, and alluring blue-green eyes almost the same color as the Gulf. She had a sensational figure, and men followed her around like lovesick puppies. Several men in White Sands had bought pets simply for an excuse to come to her office.

“Hyper-Calvinists believe in an extreme form of the doctrine of John Calvin. They believe that all things happen according to a plan, and there’s nothing much we can do about it.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Enola said. “We’ve got choices.”

“Well, the hyper-Calvinists twist Calvin’s words around, and Ocie believes all that stuff. He could have been saved years ago, but he says God’s got a plan for certain people to get saved, and it’s not his time yet. He’s just set in his ways. He makes me so mad, Enola. He won’t listen to me.”

Just then, the two women heard the sound of a man singing, and Enola said, “It sounds like Jake’s happy this morning.”

“He is,” Kate said. “He fixed us the best breakfast I ever had. I wish I were as good a cook as he is. I can’t seem to boil water without burning it.”

The door opened that led down from the upstairs apartment, and Jake Novak came in. He was a big man, six-two and weighing close to two hundred pounds. He had coarse black hair, heavy black brows, and deep-set hazel eyes. His mouth was set in a wedge-shaped face, and he had high cheekbones and a broken nose. His eyes fell on Enola and he went over to her, at once dodging Jacques, who slashed at his leg and missed. Jake put his arm around Enola, squeezed her, and gave her a big kiss on the cheek.

“Hey, stop pawing me!” she said, but not too forcefully.

“You’re my favorite veterinarian,” Jake grinned. His eyes were usually so sleepy and half-closed that he reminded people of a young Robert Mitchum, the movie star with the sleepy eyes.

Enola pushed him away and said, “Keep your hands to yourself, Jake Novak.”

Jake suddenly winked at Kate saying, “Enola and I have this thing, Mary Katherine. She’s all over me when we’re alone. I have to fight for my honor all the time on our dates, but in public she pretends she doesn’t like me much.”

Enola snorted and said, “I’m going to check the rest of the animals.”

Kate said, “Jake, we’ve got to find Ocie. That crew from American Morning’s coming, and he’s gone.”

“Well, if we can’t find Ocie,” Jake grinned, “they can interview me.” He whipped out an envelope from his back pocket and took out a slip of paper, which he waved proudly in front of Kate. “It’s time to celebrate. I got my advance on the novel. Look at it, and you’ll turn green with envy.”

Kate took the slip of paper, and her eyes opened wide. “Twenty-five thousand dollars! They’re giving you that much money…for your…your scribbling?”

Enola came over and looked at the check. She smiled and winked at Jake. “You know, Jake, for some reason I find you far more attractive than I did five minutes ago.”

Jake winked back and then kissed her on the lips.

Kate watched them with displeasure. “Please keep your disgusting flirting out of my sight.”

“She’s jealous, Enola,” Jake laughed. He released Enola, put the check on the table, and went over to embrace Kate, saying, “You want equal time?”

But Kate put up her hand. “Keep your grubby mitts off me!”

Jake laughed. Neither Kate nor Enola had ever seen him so happy. He had been working on his novel for a long time, and had grown so despondent of being unable to sell it he had almost taken to drink. Now he was almost bouncing off the walls with joy. “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do with part of this money, Enola. I’m going to hire a disaster team to clean up after Mary Katherine.” He winked at her broadly. “I figure it’ll take about six hardworking maids to clean up the mess she makes.”

Kate hated it when Jake made fun of her sloppy housekeeping, but he was right. To change the subject she said, “Enola, come on outside and look at Bandit. Never mind Mr. Rich Man here.”

The two women moved toward the door, and Jake followed them.

“Gee, I can’t decide whether to buy a Cadillac or a Rolls Royce,” he groaned.

“I think I’ll get a bigger Rolls than that limey who keeps hanging around you, Mary Katherine.”

“Never mind about Beverly. He’s a far better man than you are.”

“You just like him because he’s got a hyphen.”

The two were speaking of Beverly Devon-Hunt, a thirty-five-year-old lawyer—actually the Earl of Devon when he was at home in England. Bev had dated Kate several times, and Jake didn’t care much for that. As they passed through the door, suddenly a parrot came sweeping through the air and landed on Kate’s shoulder. He pronounced a vile word very clearly, but Kate grabbed him and said, “Say a good word, Bad Louie. A good word.”

The parrot squawked, “Hallelujah,” and both Enola and Jake laughed.

Enola gave him a glance and said, “I pronounce him well except for his vile language.”

They stepped outside, and at once Kate said, “Bandit, you stop that!”

Bandit was a full-grown coon looking much like a bandit with his black mask. He had climbed the pole where the birdseed was kept for the visiting birds and was cramming his mouth full of sunflower seeds.

Enola laughed. She went over and began poking at him. “You’re feeding him too much, Kate.”

“He eats everything!” Kate exclaimed. “He eats the cat food, the dog food, and the bird food. I’m going to have to put a muzzle on him.”

Enola laughed. “But he’s all right.” She heard a bark and turned to see a huge pit bull coming toward her. He was white with soulful eyes, and turned around and sat down on Enola’s feet. “I never saw a dog who liked to sit on people’s feet,” Enola said. “Did you teach him that?”

“No, I guess he was born with some kind of a fascination with feet.”

“I wonder why he does it?” Enola said, running her hand over the dog’s smooth hide and feeling the powerful muscles.

“Who knows why that dog does anything!” Kate said. “He drags all kinds of junk to the house, he chases cars, and if any of us gets cross with him, he pouts.”

“I don’t believe that,” Enola said. “No dog can pout.”

“You don’t think so!” Kate exclaimed. “Just watch.” She went over to Trouble, pointed her finger at him, and said fiercely, “Bad dog!” Trouble gave her a mournful look, got up, and walked over to the house. He faced the siding and began to howl and moan in a piteous way.

“You’d think we were pulling his claws out,” Kate said in disgust.

Enola laughed. “Well, I’m glad you have someone sensitive around here. Jake sure isn’t.”

“What are you talking about?” Jake said in mock disbelief. “I’m the most sensitive living thing in this house.”

“Sure you are,” Enola said wryly, then turned and said to Kate, “I’ll check the little birds and Big Bertha.”

Big Bertha was a Burmese python, the one animal in the house that Jake seemed to actually be afraid of. Kate thought that was silly, for she loved the big snake. She threatened to put Bertha in Jake’s bed when he was making fun of her, and Jake said he’d kill himself if she did.

As the three went inside, Jake said, “I’m going to the bank with this check. And I’m going to make a big noise about it. I want everybody to know how rich I am.” He stopped and looked down at the table. “Hey, where is that check?”

“You put it right on the table,” Kate said.

“Well, it’s not here.” Jake suddenly bent down and stared under the table and then crawled around to the couch. “Where is it?”

Enola said, “It’s got to be here somewhere.”

They searched frantically, and then suddenly Jake looked up and yelled, “That beast has my check!”

Enola and Kate looked up to see Jacques the Ripper perched on top of a tall bookcase. He indeed had a slip of green paper that looked like the check, and he was staring down at them with contempt.

Jake yelled, “Give me back that check, you monster!” He ran at the bookcase, reached up and made a grab, but as good as his reflexes were, they weren’t up to those of Jacques the Ripper. The claws came out with a quick sweep, leaving Jake with bloody furrows down his hand. Jake let out a yelp, but made another grab at the check. He snatched it away, or at least part of it, from Jacques, who held firmly onto the other part.

Jake ignored his bleeding hand and said, “He ate my check!”

“We’ve got to get some antiseptic on that scratch,” Enola said. “A cat scratch can be dangerous.”

But Jake shook her off. “Look at it. He tore it, and he’s eating the signature part. I’ll kill him.”

As Enola cleaned the wound and put on antiseptic, Kate said, “Jake, you can have the publishers stop payment on the check and issue another one.”

Novak stared at her. “And won’t that make me look good? ‘My cat ate my check. Please, pretty please, write me another one.’ They’ll think I’m an idiot.”

As Enola bandaged Jake’s hand, the front door opened and Ocie Plank walked into the room. Though he was eighty-five, Ocie’s back was as straight as a ramrod. His years of drinking left him looking emaciated. His grizzled white hair and wrinkled face, pale blue eyes, beak of a nose, and badly fitting false teeth made him look like a cartoon character. His clothes were torn, his ears were red, and he was obviously drunk as a lord. “What’s going on?” he demanded in a slur.

“Jacques the Ripper, that stupid cat, ate my check!” Jake bellowed. Ocie stared at him. “I thought I was drunk, but I guess you’re the one who’s drunk, Novak.”

Jake glared at Ocie, then at Jacques. He suddenly whirled and disappeared, slamming the back door with a mighty bang. Jacques was watching all this as he nibbled on the check. Cleo stared at him from below. Jacques looked down to her and said, You see that, Cleo? The Intruder’s got no selfcontrol. Jacques always called the human beings in the house by titles. Kate was the Person, her son Jeremy was the Boy, and Jake was the Intruder. Jacques had hated Jake from the moment he had stepped into their lives. He spit out a part of the check and said, I wish he’d go drown himself in the ocean. It would do us all a favor.

But our Person likes him, Jacques, Cleo answered. Shows she has bad taste, but females never have any sense about good mates.

Cleo suddenly grinned. Like the Siamese across the road that likes that big yellow tom more than she likes you?

Shut up, Cleo! You’re a female. You wouldn’t understand. He reached out with his claws and shredded the remaining fragment of the check and then jumped down with a typically graceful feline movement.

That sure made him lose his cool, didn’t it? I like that! He turned and said, Come on, Cleo. Let’s go to that green house down the road and eat the food they put out for that dumb calico.

He’s getting skinny, Jacques. You eat all the food they put out for him. You should be ashamed.

Jacques’ eyes gleamed with pleasure. He’ll have to suck it up, baby. It’s a jungle out there—and I’m getting mine!