McCormick pulled the third roll of masking tape from the grocery bag. Hardcastle swore it was the best thing to remove offending cat hair from furniture and clothes. And Hardcastle found the hair offending. McCormick wondered how anything could lose that much hair and not be running around completely bald. He hoped there would be a response to the flyers he had plastered over the campus about the found cat. Between masking tape, litter, and cat food, Bilbo was proving to be an expensive roommate.
He finished putting away the groceries, and heard the front doorbell ring. It had been several weeks since the gate alarm had shorted out. Given the type of thugs and weirdoes that frequently tried to gain access to the estate, he hoped it would be fixed soon. He approached the front door with a mixture of caution and curiosity.
As he opened the door, his interests were immediately piqued by the scent of an exotic perfume. McCormick’s mouth gaped open as he saw the woman who was wearing the perfume. She had a rich mane of red hair, long beautiful legs, and an A-1 centerfold body which made Vonna Westerlake look like a high school girl. She looked up at him with deep green eyes and pursed lips which seemed to beg to be kissed. He briefly wondered if she had the same aversion to clothes as Vonna.
“Hi, my name is Cheri, with an ‘I‘,” she said in a breathless manner which caused her breast to heave hypnotically in her low cut sweater. “Are you Mark McCormick?”
McCormick gave silent thanks that his name was, indeed, Mark McCormick. He nodded yes and gave her his best smile. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“I heard you found my cat,” she said as she reached out and touched his arm. “I’ve been so worried and I’d be so grateful to get her back.”
As she smiled back at him, his body tingled in a delightful way. Many glib and romantic responses sprung to mind but the one that won out was the small cynical voice of experience which warned him that he was never this lucky.
“Um,” said McCormick as he tried unsuccessfully to suppress his doubts. “How did you know where I live? It wasn’t on any of the flyers.”
Cheri pulled back, surprised that any male would doubt her. She deepened her smile as she leaned forward and said, “I shouldn’t say anything but my sister, Bambi, has seen you on campus and she has a bit of a crush on you. Once she and her friends followed you. She’s going to be so disappointed; she didn’t get a chance to meet you. But I’m sure I can make it up to you.” Cheri began to softly stroke his arm. Cheri leaned even closer and whispered, “We’re twins and we don’t mind sharing.”
The vision of Cheri and Bambi, together, in his dreams, successfully silenced all doubts as he led the willing beauty to the gatehouse. He attempted to continue the conversation but only received her slightly bored smile in response. The voice of cynicism, again, began to nibble at the back of his mind.
As they entered the gatehouse, they saw Bilbo asleep on the couch. Cheri gave a small shriek of greeting and rushed to grab the small animal.
“Bobo. Mommy’s missed you so much,” she cooed as she hugged him close to her, oblivious to the cat’s attempts to free himself. McCormick watched as Bilbo’s contortionist moves finally overcame the attempts to hold him. Bilbo planted his back paws against her ample chest and pushed off leaving bright red marks. An ugly mask of fury fell across her face as she watched him crawl under the couch. But the mask was replaced with her sweet inviting smile as she noticed McCormick’s look of suspicion.
“Bobo must be mad at me,” she cooed. “She’s being a bad girl.”
Bobo? She?, questioned the voice of cynicism in his head. Something’s not right.
“Miss, could I see some ID?” McCormick asked out loud.
Cheri straightened her back and stuck out her chest as she eyed him in surprise. A look of understanding appeared on her face. “Oh, you want a reward,” she said as she pulled up her purse.
“No,” denied McCormick. “Just some ID.”
“I’ve got it right here,” she said as she placed her dainty hand into her small purse and pulled out a particularly large and ugly looking gun. She pointed it at his head and her smile hardened. “Now get the cat, curly.”
This is more like it, thought McCormick as he dropped to his knees and tried to persuade the unwilling cat. He spent several long minutes trying to coax the reluctant animal out. He flipped the couch up and grabbed Bilbo, earning a long scratch along his forearm.
“Take her to the car,” Cheri ordered as she motioned with the gun.
McCormick walked slowly in front of Cheri as he tried to calm the anxious animal. He knew he needed a distraction but none came to mind. He neared the passenger door of her car when she ordered him to stop.
“Open the door and put the cat in.”
Both looked up at the sound of Hardcastle’s honking truck. “What’s going on?” Hardcastle yelled from the open vehicle window as he eyed the gun in Cheri’s hand.
Cheri hesitated, unsure whether to keep the gun pointed at McCormick or this new threat. McCormick used the moment to throw the cat directly at her pretty face. Bilbo cried out as Cheri raised her arm to swat it away. Her finger instinctively tightened on the trigger and the bullet shot through the trees.
Before either man could react, Cheri threw herself into her car and hit the accelerator. She quickly turned the vehicle and barreled out of the drive, barely missing Hardcastle as he tried to exit his truck, weapon in hand. Bilbo took advantage of the confusion to run back into the gatehouse.
Hardcastle memorized the license plates of the fleeing vehicle and turned to face McCormick. “What happened here, sport?”
“I lost another shot at twins,” sighed McCormick. “Are you hungry?” he asked as he turned toward the main house. “We got tuna.”
Hardcastle shook his head and followed the young man into the house.
McCormick put the finishing touches on the tuna salad as he explained his recent encounter with the wayward redhead.
“Cheri with an ‘I’,” laughed Hardcastle. “And you fell for it.”
“Hey,” explained McCormick, “the sweater was real convincing. And when she started talking about Bambi ...” McCormick’s eyes began to glaze over as a far-away smile appeared on his face.
He shook himself out of the pleasant fantasy and looked back at the judge. “Should we call Frank?” he asked referring to their friend with the Los Angeles police force.
“And tell him what? That someone wants to shoot you over a pussycat. What we need to do is find out what‘s so special about it that someone is willing to kill for it.”
McCormick nodded as he bit into his sandwich. He looked up as he heard the doorbell ring for the second time that day.
“You’re sure you didn’t put your address on any of the flyers?” Hardcastle asked.
“Let’s check it out,” said Hardcastle as he pulled his gun out. “Cheri with an ’I’ might have come back with friends.”
“Maybe she came back with Bambi,” McCormick grinned as he led the way to the front door.
Hardcastle stood behind and slightly to the side as McCormick opened the door.
“Do you have my cat, Mister?” asked the small blonde girl with impossibly large blue eyes that gazed trustingly up at him.
“I’ll find out, honey,” said the older woman as she patted the young girl’s shoulders. She looked up at McCormick and said “Hello. My name is Mrs. Betty Smith. I heard you found a cat and we’re hoping its Krissy’s cat. May we come in?”
McCormick stared at the two females who appeared to have walked straight out of a Norman Rockwell drawing. He opened his mouth to respond when he felt the hand of the judge on his shoulder.
“Don’t just stand there, McCormick,” said Hardcastle as he slipped the gun into his pocket. “Invite them in.”
McCormick simply stood to the side and motioned them in. Hardcastle lightly took Mrs. Smith’s arm and led her into the den. McCormick followed with Krissy, who continued to stare at him with her soulful eyes in a way which made him feel vaguely guilty. He sat Krissy in a chair by her mother and continued until he was standing by Hardcastle who was seated behind his desk. McCormick eyed Smith’s purse with suspicion. If Cheri could carry a .38, this lady could have an Uzi in hers, he thought.
“Now what can I do for you ladies?” Hardcastle asked.
“Krissy and I were at campus, visiting her sister, when our cat got loose. We looked everywhere. Then we heard you might have found it. Krissy will be so happy to get him.”
Krissy’s eyes got even larger as she bit her lower lip and clutched the small doll in her arms. “I really miss my kitty.”
Oh, brother. Laying it on a little thick, Krissy, thought McCormick.
Krissy’s eyes turned to McCormick as she added. “My daddy gave him to me.”
Betty’s eyes began to mist. “We lost Bill, her father, a few months ago. The cat was the last thing he gave her.”
McCormick leaned over and whispered in Hardcastle’s ear, “They’re going to be crying in a minute.”
“Why don’t you take Krissy in the kitchen and get her some ice cream. Then you two can go in the gatehouse and find the cat,” directed Hardcastle.
“Are you sure, Judge?” asked McCormick.
“Yes, I’m sure. Would you like anything, Mrs. Smith?”
Mrs. Smith smiled prettily and declined. She watched as an eager Krissy and a reluctant McCormick left. Hardcastle cleared his throat as she turned back to face him.
Hardcastle fixed a friendly stare at the young widow as his hand dropped to the gun in his pocket. “Now, Mrs. Smith, do you want to tell me what’s really going on here?” he asked.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said, taken aback.
“Okay, we can play it that way. What’s the cat‘s name? Describe the collar and which paw has six toes?”
Mrs. Smith’s smile faltered for a moment then reappeared as a sly grin. “They said you were smart. I think I need to show you something,” she said as she opened her purse.
Hardcastle pulled out his gun. He set it on the desk with his hand lying lightly upon it. “Bring it out slowly,” he ordered.
Mrs. Smith pulled out an official badge which she handed to him. Hardcastle examined the badge and read it aloud. “Agent Mary Brown. FBI. So who’s the kid?”
Agent Mary Brown’s smile took on a guilty hue. “She’s my daughter, Krissy.”
“You brought your daughter on a case?” Hardcastle asked incredulously.
“She always wants to help out and I just needed to pick up a lost cat from a couple of civilians. I didn’t think there would be any problem. Your government really does need you to turn over the cat.”
“Want to tell me what this is all about?”
Mary sighed. “What I can tell you is some people at the university that Mr. McCormick is attending are doing some research for our government. We received some information that there was a mole involved in the project. The cat belonged to him. He collected the information and placed it onto a microdot which he injected under the cat’s skin. He turned the cat over to his handlers who planned to take it out of the country as a family pet. They plan to retrieve the information and sell it to the highest bidders.”
“If you know who’s been stealing the information, why don’t you question him?”
“He must have known we were getting suspicious. Before we could bring him in for questioning, he committed suicide. That cat is the only way to find out how compromised the project is. Now it’s a possible link to the spy ring.”
“Let me make a few calls. If your information checks out, you can have the cat.”
Mary’s full smile appeared back on her face. “Thank you, Judge Hardcastle. By the way, which paw does have six toes?”
“None of them,” he answered as he smiled back. The smile turned into a worried expression as he heard a gun shot ring out from the back yard. “Call the police!” he ordered as he grabbed his gun and ran out of the den. Mary Brown pulled a similar gun from her purse and followed behind him.