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One Cat For the Road by Gin Jones

Read Online One Cat For the Road by Gin Jones Mystery Book

Overview: How many cats does it take to be called a crazy cat lady?
For nurse-practitioner Wyn Miller, living in a post-apocalyptic future when domestic animals are rare, the answer is one—an orange Maine Coon cat named Sal.
It's not the quantity that matters; it's that she would kill to protect him.
So when the man who'd tried to steal Sal is found dead, Wyn is the prime suspect. Can she sort out the other possibilities, all of whom have a motive for murder, and identify the killer before the police can arrest her and impound Sal?


Read Online One Cat For the Road by Gin Jones Book Chapter One Free. Find Hear Best Mystery Books And Novel For Reading And Download.
One Cat For the Road by Gin Jones

Read Online One Cat For the Road by Gin Jones Book Chapter One

I stole my first cat from a dead man.

I didn't kill the man. He was still alive when I first saw him, and I did everything I could to help. By that point, though, he was barely alive, with only one week left, max. It didn't require either my medical training or my less socially acceptable aura-reading ability to make the diagnosis. His skin hung off him as if he'd lost a hundred pounds in just a few weeks, his breathing was shallow and uneven, and most telling of all, he'd let himself be admitted to the City Hospital. No one came here unless he was too weak or too slow to get away from the ambulance crew.

The man clearly knew he was dying from the Tox. He didn't complain—he didn't talk to anyone about anything, as far as I'd seen—but that wasn't unusual. Patients at this stage all wanted the same two things: to die quickly rather than lingering in excruciating pain, and to have someone with them when they died.

There wasn't much that I—or anyone these days—could do about the pain. Morphine barely touched the agony of the final days of the Tox, and the drug, like everything else that science had developed before the Disasters, was in short supply. Patients were doled out a minimal dose, even in major city hospitals like this one. The black market had it in abundance, but you never knew what you were getting there. Sometimes it was the real thing, sometimes it was ground up chalk, sometimes it was rat poison.

I couldn't even do much about the dying man's natural desire for companionship. The Tox epidemic ensured that, as a nurse practitioner specializing in geriatrics, I had an overwhelming number of patients. I barely had time to deal with their medical crises, let alone work on the research database I was compiling for the poorly understood and often fatal disease striking down much of the remaining population over the age of forty-five.

As it turned out, this particular patient didn't really need me to spend any time with him. I don't know how, but somehow he'd smuggled his own companionship into the hospital. It was the third day of his hospital stay and I was doing a routine check on him during my morning rounds when I noticed the tip of an orange striped tail sticking out from under the hospital bed. I bent down to get a closer look. The patient must have been at least partially aware of his surroundings, and my investigation of his secret visitor caused an adrenaline spike that brought him to full consciousness. The patient grabbed my wrist in a surprisingly strong grip, and said, "Mine."

A menacing hiss, followed by a growl, emerged from under the bed.

I patted the dying man's hand. "I'm just looking. I won't try to take it away from you."

Pets were such a rarity these days that I couldn't recall the last one I'd seen. During the Disasters that had killed three quarters of the human population, domestic animals had perished in comparable numbers, possibly at even a higher rate, since they'd been dependent on humans who could no longer care for them. In the decade since then, all the living creatures on the planet—human and otherwise, domestic and feral—had suffered from widespread infertility, which science still couldn't explain any more than it could cure the Tox. Breeding programs could barely sustain themselves, and the animals available for adoption were so scarce that they were outrageously expensive.

I stared at my patient's gaunt face, wondering how he'd acquired such a rare creature as a domestic cat. If he'd had the resources to get a cat, how had he ended up in the City Hospital? Maybe he'd spent everything on the cat, buying companionship for his dying days.

In any event, the man wasn't in any shape to answer my questions. He'd used whatever reserve of energy he had to grab my wrist. Apparently reassured that I wasn't a threat, he released his hold on me. As soon as he did, the cat stopped growling.

I lifted the edge of the blankets to get a good look under the bed. The creature was orange and larger than the typical domesticated cat. He must have weighed at least twenty-five pounds, I thought, although the long fur made it difficult to tell how much of his size was fluff and how much of it was bones and muscle. The animal didn't seem afraid of me, but gave the impression that it was simply following orders, lurking there and waiting for the next command from its owner.

The man gave the mattress beside his hip three evenly spaced, barely audible taps. The cat was out of its hiding spot and onto the bed with a single leap of its long legs.

"Mine," the man repeated, and the cat's brief growl echoed his word. The man's eyes drifted shut, and he lost consciousness again.

I'd never had a pet back when they were cheap and plentiful, and I certainly didn't have either the money or the time to spend on acquiring or keeping one now. I'd never really thought much about cats before, but this one fascinated me. This one, I needed.

When the patient died, I was claiming the cat.

From that moment on, I returned to sit with the cat and the owner whenever my schedule permitted. Sometimes I did my patient follow-up notes on my laptop there instead of in my tiny office, sometimes I just sat with him and did some knitting. I always brought treats: for the cat, chicken livers and fish scraps from the hospital canteen. For the man, I dug into my stash of painkillers from the rooms of patients who'd died between the issuance of the meds and the time for taking the actual pills, which would have been disposed of otherwise. I'd been claiming and redistributing the unused drugs for years. There was too much need to let them go to waste, even if being caught might have cost me my medical license.

The man's death took longer than I'd anticipated. Perhaps the extra painkillers had been a mistake. Sometimes I thought the chemical pain relief was more of a punishment than a blessing. It allowed the body to recuperate a little, not enough for the patient to survive, but just enough for the body to linger a few additional, tortured days. Still, there came a point when I knew that even with the painkillers' reprieve, the man couldn't last much longer. His aura had already departed, and he would follow by the next morning.

I finished my regular shift a little after dinner time, and signed out. I stayed at the hospital, though, settling into the cat owner's room. I read to him from a book of poetry a patient had given me a couple years ago. My voice wasn't great, and I didn't much like poetry, but whenever I had the time to read to other patients, they had seemed to appreciate the distraction. This one didn't. After a few minutes, he muttered something I suspected was only a slightly more polite way of saying, "Shut up."

For the next several hours, I sat quietly, watching the man and his cat. The only sounds in the room were my knitting needles, the cat's purr and the man's labored breathing. It wouldn't be long now.

The cat's chin was propped on the man's shoulder, its eyes intent on his face. The rest of the animal was curled up between the man's arm and his chest, tucked into the armpit. The man draped his arm over the cat, and whenever it stopped purring, he would feebly strum his fingers along the animal's ribs until the soothing rumble started up again.

Sometime after midnight, I ventured closer to the bed to see if the cat would let me pat it.

The man opened his eyes and looked directly at me, seemingly more aware of his surroundings than I'd seen him at any time since he'd been admitted to the City Hospital. "Sal," he said, and the cat perked its head up. "The name is Sal."

"That's a lovely name." My gal, Sal. Old-fashioned in a good way. Unlike my own name, Blodwyn, which was certainly old-fashioned, but not in a pleasant, barbershop-quartet-song kind of way. Blodwyn was just bloody awful, even when it was shortened to Wyn.

Before I could ask if the cat had been named after someone he knew, possibly someone he'd lost in the Disasters, the patient once again closed his eyes and lapsed into unconsciousness.

The next time the cat stopped purring, the man lay still, his hand motionless on the cat's ribs.

"It's over, Sal," I said, making the obligatory check of his pulse, even though I knew there would be none. I made a note on his chart for the time of death. "Let's go home."

I pulled the sheet over the man's face and packed up my knitting.

The cat tugged the covering back down for one last look at its owner. Maybe it was just my imagination, but the animal's eyes seemed so sad. At least this old man would be missed by someone, if only by a cat, which was more than most of my patients could have claimed. Very few of them had family members, and I didn't have the time or emotional energy to mourn people I'd barely even known.

The cat's obvious grief made me feel a little guilty that, during the six hours I'd just spent at the side of a dying man, all my only emotion had been impatience for the end. Not curiosity about him personally, not sympathy for his suffering, not even a mild sense of loss at the passing of a fellow creature. Just impatience for him to finish dying, so I could steal his cat.

I didn't even know the man's name.

I used to care about my patients. I used to think I could make a difference in their lives, or at least, by studying them, I could make a difference in the lives of my future Tox patients. Now, all I felt was numbness. I'd lost whatever hope I'd had for solving the mystery of the Tox, and I'd lost my capacity for human compassion. I'd felt more sympathy for a grieving cat than I had for the man who'd just died or the hundred patients who'd died before him.

I couldn't go on like this. I wasn't really helping the patients, beyond prolonging their suffering, and my overwhelming workload prevented me from trying out new treatments or theories. I needed to leave the City Hospital, maybe the city itself, and find a place where I could care about my patients again. Maybe then I could make a difference in their lives, working with patients as individuals instead of as data to feed into a flawed program.

I let the cat say its farewells while I searched beneath the bed for its leash. The cat washed its owner's face for several minutes and then turned toward me, a questioning look on its face as if asking me what it was supposed to do now.

"You're coming with me, Sal."

The cat let me snap the leash onto its harness and lead it out into the hallway.

I wrote the hospital administrator a brief note—"I quit"—and emptied out my locker, keeping Sal beside me the whole time. No one paid any attention to us, too inundated with their numbing work to notice even something as rare as an oversized housecat padding down the hallway on a leash.

At the front desk, the security guard awoke from his nap and peered at my new companion. "Beautiful animal. Whose is it?"

"It's mine," I said without slowing down on my way toward the exit. "The old man in Room 214 gave her to me."

Something of an exaggeration at best, and a felony at worst. I wasn't even sure I'd heard the man correctly when he'd told me the cat's name, and it was a huge leap to conclude that telling me the name was tantamount to transferring ownership.

I didn't particularly care. The patient was dead, and there was no one else with any claim on the cat, except perhaps the hospital, as payment for the man's final expenses. Maybe I stole the cat from the hospital, then, instead of a dead man.

No matter how it had happened, Sal was mine now.

 
It turned out that "Sal" didn't refer to "my gal, Sal" at all. More like an abbreviated version of Salvatore. Definitely male. And exotic. The day after quitting the City Hospital, I'd taken him to a veterinarian friend who told me Sal was at least partly a Maine Coon cat, and weighed in at just under twenty-five pounds. He'd been neutered, which explained some of his laid-back attitude.

I might have misunderstood, and perhaps the old man had been saying his own name, introducing himself, rather than his cat. It bothered me that I'd never taken the time to learn this patient's name, and I felt a great deal more guilt about that than I ever did for stealing the animal. Still, the cat answered to "Sal," and it seemed only right to remember the old man by keeping the name, whoever it had belonged to originally.

The trip to the vet's office taught me one more thing: Sal attracted too much attention in the city. He was too heavy to carry for any distance. His willingness to walk on a leash was complicated by his refusal to take the shortest distance between two points. When he wasn't searching for prey, he was rubbing up against strangers, demanding their attention. On the way home from the vet, we were followed by no less than fifty people over the course of a dozen blocks. Some of them were children who'd never seen a domestic cat in real life before, others were teary-eyed with memories of childhood pets, and a few I suspected of wanting to make Sal their own. One even approached me to ask how much it would cost to buy him.

Sal was not for sale. Ever.

The man accepted my answer, but I worried that others might not be so easily dissuaded. The city was not a safe place to own anything valuable.

I hadn't left the city, even for a brief trip, in at least ten years, not since I'd arrived here for medical school. I graduated just a few weeks before the Disasters started, wiping out many of the surrounding areas and requiring my skills at the City Hospital without any respite. There hadn't really been a question of which hospital I would settle down at; people were dying, and I was here. There would be time to travel to another city, another hospital, later, I'd thought. Except the patients had never stopped filling this hospital, and they'd never stopped dying. They never would.

It was time to heal myself, and find a place where I could help patients without being overwhelmed. I knew that some of the devastated areas between the remaining cities were being resettled, but I didn't know which ones could support a full-time nurse practitioner. And her cat.

A little research revealed that a new industry—a variation on tourism—had blossomed in the past year or so, targeting people who wanted to find a home outside the city. The tour leaders arranged train trips to likely relocation destinations for urban residents who, like me, were coming to realize that the major cities, once the focus of recovery efforts, had now reached their limits and life there was one of grim survival, nothing more. The future lay in new settlements in what used to be suburbs and in rural areas that had reverted to virtual wilderness.

It took a couple weeks, but I eventually reserved a seat on a relocation tour of the area west of the city. Gerry—no one used last names when relocating, not even the one doing the facilitation—was our relocation guide. He'd arranged for our group to meet up at the city's main train station on Friday, about an hour before our first train was due to leave. I was the last to arrive, after a last-minute problem with Sal's carrier. I'd found it in a resale shop while looking for a travel trunk. Unfortunately, the carrier was designed for a regular housecat, about half the size of Sal. While there was enough room for Sal, the carrier was made of fairly flimsy materials. I'd miscalculated just how much of a strain Sal's weight would place on the screws holding the top half of the carrier to the bottom.

By the time I'd realized the problem—picking up the carrier and hearing the cracking of the plastic where the screws held it together—it was too late to find a better way to carry Sal. If I missed today's relocation tour, it could be weeks before I'd have another opportunity to look for a new home. We had to go, and go now.

Wrapping the carrier with several layers of duct-tape provided a short-term remedy, but the only way the carrier would survive the trip intact was if Sal spent as little time as possible inside it, and as much time as possible roaming freely on his leash. His ability to do that would depend on the goodwill of my fellow travelers. Still, I had to try.

I spotted Gerry as soon as I arrived inside the cavernous train station. He'd told us that he'd be wearing a bright yellow golf shirt and a matching baseball cap, and it did indeed make him easily visible, despite his somewhat less than average height. He looked to be around forty, but, unlike most people his age, his face was smooth and completely free of the signs of stress, as if he hadn't suffered at all during the Disasters. It had to be a fluke of genetics or something. No one who'd lived through the last dozen years was unscathed. I certainly wasn't. I'd lost my mother to the Tox, and then my father to a bridge collapse a few years later.

Gerry already knew about Sal, so the leader wasn't going to object to the cat's presence. I considered the others in our group. There were three teenage boys who whispered to one another a lot, and weren't interested in anything but their little group. They just shrugged when I asked them if they minded my bringing along a pet.

Among the others were a cheerfully pudgy twenty-something woman who squealed in obvious delight at the prospect of patting a cat and the tall man with her, who silently deferred to her wishes. There was also a small, frail, elderly man, who had the residue of a sickly coppery tinge to his aura identifying him as someone who'd recently recovered from the Tox. He had nodded off on a bench behind Gerry, and I didn't see any point in waking him up. He was likely to sleep through most of the trip and never even notice Sal.

Beside the old man, propping him up whenever he started to slide too far down his seat, was a good-looking man closer to my age. He told me, "I don't care who or what is in the group—animal, vegetable or mineral—as long as we get out of here on time. Trains are supposed to run on schedule, not on whims."

And finally there was a shy, plain woman in her mid-thirties, who kept herself somewhat apart from the others and appeared to be a little frightened of Sal. I braced myself for her vote to exclude Sal, but before she answered, she glanced at Gerry as if seeking either permission or approval. Whatever she saw on his face convinced her to shrug and say, "Just keep it away from me. I've got allergies."

We boarded the train a few minutes later, and I waited until Stephanie—the woman with the allergies—had settled into a seat next to Gerry before I chose my own seat, as far away from her as possible. The cheerful young woman and her silent husband joined me, with the old man and his schedule-obsessed friend behind us and the teens in their own little world, insulated from everyone else by their self-absorption, even though they were sitting just across the aisle.

The miles passed quickly, and no one, except for the whispering teens, said much. I watched the countryside, bright and green, with vegetation reclaiming the broken remnants of what had once been heavily populated areas. Sal napped in the carrier under my seat, reassuring me that he was a better traveler than cats were reputed to be.

Our first stop to view a prospective relocation site was only about an hour outside the city. I couldn't leave Sal behind on the train, and carrying a twenty-five pound cat wasn't feasible for any significant distance. Sal was going to have to walk beside me.

The old man, asleep in his seat, stayed behind, but the others jostled to leave the train car to get their first view of what could be their new home. I tamped down my own impatience until they were all gone, and then I unlatched the door of Sal's carrier and snapped the leash onto his harness as he emerged.

After a brief detour to let Sal empty his bladder, I caught up with the rest of the group as they reached the far end of the sparsely populated platform, where some sort of shack had been erected. There were two men in the distinctive blue uniform of railroad employees, one a cop and the other probably something like a station master. There were three passengers, heading in the opposite direction. And that was it.

According to Gerry's brochure, he had contacts at every station, and he'd make sure we learned everything we needed to know before making a decision to relocate. We didn't have much time at each of the stops, but I'd expected him to arrange something more than I could have done on my own. There should have been time to meet a few local residents, perhaps get a quick view of something that demonstrated the area's potential, maybe hear from a civic leader. Instead, all he seemed to offer us here was the chance to stretch our legs for half an hour, mostly by way of trekking the length of the train platform to the shack he claimed was a tourist center.

The place reminded me of the decrepit old buildings at rest stops that used to dot the interstate highways. It was cheaply built, barely more than a gazebo, with a roof and unfinished walls that doubled as display racks for information about the surrounding areas. Instead of the glossy vacation brochures I recalled from pre-Disaster trips, the literature here was nothing more than a few hand-drawn maps, plus an assortment of simple press releases describing the very basic amenities available here: potable water, non-contaminated land, and regular deliveries of government-subsidized emergency food supplies. It was more than some places had, but far from ideal.

When Stephanie wasn't keeping a wary eye on Sal, she was wandering around the room, ignoring the literature in favor of watching Gerry from a distance, like a shy teen in the throes of her first crush. Tom and Mary huddled together, studying literature pulled at random from the displays, with Mary carrying both sides of the conversation. Dan took a more systematic approach, starting at one end of the room and taking one of everything available, presumably for further study on the train.

I read the press releases, but there was nothing worth keeping for further study; nothing in any of them covered what I needed to know. I'd been counting on asking the local residents about the issues I cared about, the ones no press release would ever address. I understood that, given the rarity of pets, the town wouldn't think to explain why cats and their owners might be happy here. I also understood why there was nothing in the press releases describing the incidence of Tox in the area, or the possible need for a medical provider trained in the disease. The rise of the Tox had led to a certain amount of hysteria, and the lack of an effective treatment regimen had fueled a widespread prejudice against patients and their medical providers. The existence of even one Tox patient was not something that a town would brag about to prospective residents.

Fortunately, this was only the first stop out of dozens that Gerry had scheduled, and there had to be places where I could talk to the local residents. I doubted I was missing out on any great opportunities here. From what little I could see of this area, it didn't look much different from the city we'd just left. Too much work to repair the existing infrastructure, too few people to do the work, too little to sustain the population in the meantime. And nothing whatsoever to suggest the place would improve in the near future.

The three teenage boys didn't see it that way, though. Just ten minutes after we'd arrived, they announced that this was where they wanted to settle down, and they didn't need to see the rest of the options. The speed of their decision made me wonder if the teens were running away from something or someone rather than searching for a real home and a real future. All they'd wanted was "somewhere else," and that was what they'd found. They would likely be disappointed when their troubles caught up to them again, but they were young, and they had time to make mistakes. And they didn't have anyone depending on them to make the right decision.

Gerry took them aside, and after several minutes of private conversation, the teens raced back to the train to get their bags.

"I tried," Gerry said as he rejoined the group. "I explained that were plenty of other places on the itinerary, and they couldn't decide properly until they'd seen more of them, but they wouldn't listen. You know how kids are. Well, maybe not. But, anyway, I told them they should keep going, and then if they finished the tour without finding anything better, they could come back here then. They didn't want to wait, though, and they wouldn't listen to me. Maybe one of you might have better luck."

Stephanie rushed to his defense. "I'm sure you did everything you could. Don't blame yourself."

The good-looking man, whose name I'd since learned was Dan, said, "Why didn't you anticipate this sort of problem before we left? You could have given them the lecture then, when they might have listened, instead of waiting until the last minute. There's no time to argue with them now. We have to get back aboard the train, or it will leave without us."

"You're right." Gerry glanced, one last time, at the teens dragging their bags toward the exit before gesturing for everyone to return to the train. "There's nothing more we can do for them right now. Besides, there isn't a single perfect relocation spot that works for everyone. Maybe this place really is the right one for them. Don't worry. If they change their minds, they can contact me, and I'll help them find a perfect new spot."

"Come on," Dan said, raising his wrist to wave his watch at us. It was the sort of sturdy, practical timepiece a nurse might wear: easy to read at a glance and cheap to replace when the antiseptics and other hazards of the job took their toll on it. He tapped the watch to draw further attention to the time. "We've got to go, or the train will leave without us."

Gerry nodded, and we left the teens to their new home. Sal trotted at my side as we returned to our seats. When we reached the train, he flew over the steps in a single leap. He was less eager to get back into his carrier, though, staring at me with doleful green eyes and settling onto his haunches in front of the carrier's open door, daring me to order him inside.

The cheerful young woman, sitting across from me with a tall, silent man, said, "You don't have to put him back in the carrier. He's too beautiful to be locked up."

She and her seat-matehad dozed for most of the first hour before our stop, so we hadn't been formally introduced. "Thanks. I'm Wyn. And the cat's name is Sal."

"I'm Mary." She gestured at the man beside her. "And this is my husband Tom."

He nodded a silent greeting.

I tucked the empty carrier away, and gestured for Sal, still attached to the leash in case anyone complained, to jump up beside me. His extraordinary height allowed him to look out the window, which he did briefly, but he was more interested in the people around him. He stared at Mary and Tom, as if he were wondering why they hadn't invited him over to sit on their laps. I was sure Mary would be thrilled to hold Sal, but I was reluctant to make the offer. I tried to convince myself that I was just watching out for his best interests, but I knew it was a lie. Mary wouldn't hurt Sal, and he'd probably enjoy the additional attention.

The truth was not very admirable, but I was simply being selfish. Sal was mine, and I wasn't ready to share him. I'd only had him for a few weeks, and most of that time I'd been so busy preparing for this trip that I'd barely had a chance to simply enjoy Sal's presence. The deep sense of contentment I felt every time he settled in my lap and began to purr still took me by surprise. I wondered if I'd ever become so accustomed to his presence that I took him for granted, or at least would be willing to let him go for brief periods.

Mary didn't ask to hold Sal, and I didn't offer. We chatted amiably from time to time, with Mary translating her husband's silences, but Sal remained at my side.

Over the next three days and countless stops, each one barely distinguishable from the first, the remainder of our group remained intact. The old man, Roger, had only left the train once or twice, sleeping through the rest of the towns. Dan had a huge stack of brochures now, alphabetized and memorized between the stops. Tom and Mary seemed overwhelmed by all the possibilities, but were reserving judgment until they'd seen every location on our itinerary.

Stephanie—I couldn't figure out what Stephanie wanted. She didn't read the literature, didn't ask any questions, didn't even seem interested in anything except staying away from Sal and near Gerry, who seemed oblivious to her infatuation with him. Or maybe he had noticed, I thought, and he was trying to discourage her without being blatant about it. She didn't seem to notice that he spent less time trying to make sure she was a satisfied customer than he spent with the rest of us. He made an obvious effort to talk with us individually at each stop, reassuring anyone who was growing discouraged and generally trying to make us feel like we hadn't wasted our money on the trip. He didn't do that with Stephanie, though, at least not that I'd seen.

Notwithstanding Gerry's efforts to convince me of the opportunities in the places where we'd stopped, none of the little settlements had even remotely piqued my interest so far. I was starting to have serious doubts that anything would. It had rapidly become clear that Gerry didn't have any useful contacts at all, let alone the extensive ones he'd claimed to have, and he certainly wasn't a connoisseur of relocation spots. As far as I could tell, he'd simply strung together a few connecting train lines and then presented every single stop as a prime relocation destination without contacting any of the residents or doing other research.

Still, the train travel was pleasant enough, Sal seemed to be enjoying all the attention I was giving him, and there was always the possibility that, even without any real planning on Gerry's part, we might each stumble across a place offering exactly what we were looking for in a new home.

That hope kept all of us going until we reached the layover on Sunday evening.

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