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Purrfectly Hidden

Mysteries of Max 16

You know that feeling when you suddenly find a skeleton in your basement? You don’t? Well, I’m sorry to say that I do. And let me tell you, it’s not as enjoyable as it sounds. So when it happened to Marge, it’s safe to say she wasn’t thrilled. Add to that the mouse issue we’d been faced with, and my day was fraught with a measure of discomfort.

Odelia immediately did what she does best: figuring out whoever had put that skeleton in her mother’s basement, while my fellow cats and I focused on what we do best: catching mice. Or actually we didn’t. You see, we might be cats, but we’re also felinists at heart, in the sense that we strongly feel every creature on God’s green earth has a right to live and thrive. Or at least that was our position before we met that mouse face to face. Suffice it to say he wasn’t a felinist, and things quickly got out of paw.

But don’t let that stop you from picking up this story. You’ll learn such fascinating things as the right way to interrogate an old macaw, whether cats do or do not need to brush their teeth, how to protect yourself in case you happen to be hit by a nuke and, almost as an afterthought, who the heck put that darn skeleton in Marge’s basement. In other words, just another day in the otherwise uneventful life of a big-boned blorange feline sleuth and his friends.

Prologue

Marge loved these quiet mornings when she had the house all to herself. Tex and Vesta were at the office, and so were Odelia and Chase, and the cats were probably next door having a quiet nap, or out in the backyard wistfully gazing at the flock of birds occupying the big cherry tree. It was a gorgeous morning, and she enjoyed it to the fullest. She’d vacuumed upstairs and downstairs, had put in a load of laundry and was busy in the kitchen, humming along with Dua Lipa’s latest hit blasting from the speakers, when suddenly the kitchen tap sputtered and hissed, then gurgled up a small trickle of brown water and promptly died on her.

“Dang it,” she muttered as she tried the tap again, with the same result. She stared at the recalcitrant thing for a moment, hands on hips, willing it to work by the sheer force of her willpower, but faucets are tough opponents, and it decided to stay dead instead.

She heaved a deep sigh and called her husband.

“Hey, hon,” said Tex as he picked up. “I’m with a patient right now. Can I call you back?”

“It’s the kitchen faucet. It’s broken.”

“Broken, huh? Okay if I take a look at it tonight?”

“Yeah, fine,” she said and disconnected. She thought for a moment, then went into the laundry room. It had been conspicuously quiet in there, and she now saw that the machine had stopped mid cycle. And when she opened the tap next to the washer, it was as dead as the one in the kitchen.

Ugh.

She returned to the kitchen and stood thinking for a moment, wondering whether to wait for Tex, but then her eye caught the pet flap Tex had installed in the kitchen door, the one that had cost him a week to put in place and for which he’d needed the help of her brother and Chase to finish, and she picked up her phone again and called her mom.

“I’m busy,” said that sprightly old lady. “What do you want?”

“I’ve got a problem with my plumbing,” she said.

“Ask Tex. He’s the expert. And wear adult diapers.”

“Not my plumbing, ma. The plumbing of the house.”

“In that case diapers won’t do you any good. And nor will Tex.”

“You don’t think Tex will be able to fix it?”

“Honey, that husband of yours can’t even change a lightbulb without taking down the entire grid. Why don’t you call Gwayn Partington? He’s a licensed plumber.”

“And an expensive one. What about Alec?”

“Forget about it. He’s in your husband’s league.”

“Chase?”

Mom was quiet for a moment. She might not be a great fan of Tex or even her own son Alec, but she had a soft spot for her granddaughter’s boyfriend. “Now I wouldn’t mind seeing that man in coveralls and a wrench in his hand. Or even without coveralls and a wrench in his hand. Though I’m sure he would do just fine without the wrench.”

Both women were silent as they contemplated the image of Chase Kingsley, dressed only in a wrench. Then Marge shook herself. It wasn’t right to think of her potential future son-in-law that way. “Is he any good at plumbing, that’s what I want to know.”

“No idea, honey. But he can always come and clean my pipes, if you know what I mean.”

Double ugh.

“Gotta go,” said Mom. “Some old coot is yanking my chain. No, the doctor won’t see you now, Cooper! You’ll have to wait your turn!” she cried, then promptly disconnected.

Next on Marge’s list of people to call in a case of an emergency was her daughter Odelia. Before she hired an expensive plumber and spent good money, she needed to exhaust all other—cheaper—possibilities, like any responsible homeowner would.

“Hey, Mom,” said Odelia. “What’s up?”

“Does Chase know anything about plumbing?”

“Does Chase know anything about plumbing? Well, he is pretty handy.”

“Yes, but can he fix the plumbing?”

“Honestly? That exact theme never cropped up in any of our conversations.”

“But what do you think?”

“I think you better ask Gwayn Partington. He’s a licensed plumber.”

A deep sigh. “Fine.”

What good was it to have three men in the family when none of them could fix the plumbing? Maybe Odelia should have dated a handyman, not a cop. But her daughter was right. Why postpone the inevitable? So she dialed Gwayn Partington’s number and was gratified when the man picked up on the first ring.

“Hi, Gwayn. Marge Poole. When do you have time to take a look at my plumbing?”

“I could come over right now, if you want. I had another job lined up but that fell through, so…”

At that moment, her phone warned her that Odelia was trying to reach her, so she said, “One moment please, Gwayn. It’s my daughter. Yes, honey?”

“I just called Chase and he says he doesn’t know the first thing about plumbing and you better ask an expert if you ever want to enjoy the blessings of running water ever again.”

“Thanks, honey,” she said, and switched back to Gwayn. “Harrington Street 46. Yes, I’m home.”

Ten minutes later Gwayn’s van pulled to a stop in front of the house and when she opened the door she felt she’d done the right thing. Gwayn Partington did look amazingly capable, with his blue coveralls and his metal toolkit. At fifty he was pudgy and balding and maybe not the image of male perfection Chase Kingsley was, but at least he would get her faucets all working again, even though he might charge a small fortune.

And as he got down to business in the kitchen, she watched with an admiring eye how he didn’t waste time. He fiddled with the tap, then disappeared underneath the sink for a moment, messed around there for a bit, and finally muttered something incomprehensible, took his toolkit and stomped down the stairs and into the basement.

Moments later he was stomping up again, went to grab something from his van and when he returned, soon the sounds of a hammer hitting a brick wall could be heard. Like a regular Thor fighting the demon that had messed up her plumbing, Gwayn swung a mean hammer.

No. This was not a problem Tex could have solved, or Alec, or even Chase.

And as she picked up a copy of Women’s World, a holler at the front door made her put it down again. “You’ve got mail, lady!” the new arrival shouted.

She smiled as she got up to meet the mailwoman in the hallway.

“Hey, Bambi,” she said as she joined her.

Bambi Wiggins had been their mailwoman for years, and was never too busy for a quick chat. And as she talked to Bambi about the new baby, and Bambi’s husband Randi, suddenly a scream rose from the basement. Marge exchanged a look of concern with Bambi, and then both women were hurrying down the stairs. And as they came upon the licensed plumber, who was holding his hammer and chisel and staring at a hole he’d apparently made in the far wall, she asked, “What’s wrong, Gwayn?”

The man looked a little greenish, and stood gnawing nervously at the end of his chisel. Already she knew what was going on here. He’d been a little hasty and had made a hole in the wrong place, possibly knocking out a load-bearing wall or a vital part of the house’s plumbing system with one ill-advised blow of his hammer. And now, unlike Thor, he was too stunned and embarrassed to admit it.

And as she went in for a closer look, she suddenly halted in her tracks when her gaze fell upon a sight that couldn’t possibly be real.

There, sitting and staring at her with its big sockets for eyes, was… a skeleton.

“Oh, my God,” Bambi cried. “Marge. You’ve got a frickin’ dead body in your wall!”

And so she had.

Chapter One

We were holding a war meeting in our war room. Well, maybe not a room, per se, but at least a war bush. Dooley, myself, Harriet and Brutus, the four cats that are part of the Poole family feline household, sat ensconced behind the tulip tree at the back of Odelia’s backyard for this most important meeting. As befitting a war meeting of the war cabinet in the war bush, there was only one item on the agenda. A very important item.

Mice.

Yes, you read that right. I had called this most urgent and all-important meeting to discuss rodents. You may have seen them scurrying around in your basement or your attic, or even, for the more daring ones, in your kitchen, where they try to steal a piece of cheese, or, let’s not limit ourselves to the clichés, a piece of beef or a slice of apple pie. After all, mice will eat almost anything their little hearts desire. As long as it’s not too heavy they will carry it between their tiny rodent teeth and make off with it before you realize it’s missing.

“We have to do it,” said Brutus now, though he didn’t seem entirely happy, just like the rest of us.

“I don’t know, Brutus,” said Harriet. “I don’t like the idea of murder. And let’s face it, that’s what this is: pure and inexcusable homicide.”

“Not homicide, though,” I said. “Homicide means the murder of a person. A mouse is not a person. It’s a rodent, so technically we’re talking about rodenticide.”

“I don’t care what you call it, Max,” said Harriet. “It’s still a crime against humanity.”

“Again, not a crime against humanity. Rodentity, possibly, if that’s a word.”

“I don’t like this, Max,” said Dooley, using a favorite phrase. “I don’t want to kill mice. Mice are living creatures, just like the rest of us, and we should let them live in peace.”

“Look, I’m all for letting mice live in peace and harmony,” I said, “but the fact of the matter is that Odelia has given us an assignment, and we owe it to her to carry it out.”

“First off, it wasn’t Odelia that gave us the assignment,” said Harriet. “It was Tex. And secondly, what can he do if we simply refuse to carry out his orders? Punish us? Hide our food? I don’t think he’ll do that, you guys. Tex is a doctor, not a monster.”

“It wasn’t just Tex,” I said. “It was Marge, too. And I didn’t hear Odelia or Gran or Chase complain when they told us to ‘take care of the mouse problem,’ did you?”

“If they want the mouse problem taken care of, they should do it themselves,” said Harriet stubbornly. “We’re cats, not hired assassins.”

“It’s common knowledge that cats catch mice,” I explained.

“No, it’s not.”

“Yes, it is.”

“It isn’t!”

“I’m not a killer, Max,” said Dooley. “And I don’t want anything bad to happen to that sweet little mouse.”

“I don’t want anything bad to happen to the mouse either!” I said. “But it needs to go.”

“So what if some nice Mickey Mouse chose Odelia’s basement as its new home?” said Harriet. “Odelia should be happy. She should be glad. She should roll out the welcome mat! A new little friend for us to play with, and a source of joy for the Poole family.”

“The mouse has been stealing food,” I pointed out.

“Because it’s hungry!”

“Maybe Odelia could feed it?” Dooley suggested it. “I wouldn’t mind sharing some of my kibble with a sweet little Mickey Mouse.”

“It’s not a sweet little Mickey Mouse!” I said. “It’s a thief, and if there’s one there’s probably others.”

“I don’t see the problem,” said Harriet, shaking her head. “I really don’t.”

“Maybe we should go and talk to the mouse,” Brutus now suggested.

“Exactly!” cried Harriet. “If Odelia really wants that mouse to behave, we should talk to the mouse and make it see reason. Tell it to say no to stealing. Reform. But then we also have to talk to Odelia and make her see reason, too. Tell her to adopt the mouse.”

I rarely put my paws to my head but I did so now. “Adopt the mouse!” I cried.

“Why not? The Pooles love cats, why can’t they learn to love mice, too?”

I leaned in. “Because they specifically told us to get rid of them!”

“We could always ask that sweet little mouse to move,” Dooley now suggested. “That way we don’t commit mousicide, and the Pooles will still be happy.”

It seemed like an acceptable compromise, though I could tell Harriet wasn’t entirely happy. “I’m still going to have a crack at Odelia and make her see the error of her mouse-hating ways,” she said now.

“I think you’re wrong,” I said, drawing a hissed hush from Brutus. Never tell Harriet she’s wrong, he clearly meant to say. But I was getting a little worked up myself.

Harriet drew her nose closer to mine, her eyes like slits. “And when have I ever been wrong about something?” she asked now.

She was going full Terminator on me now, and I almost expected her to shed her white furry skin and reveal the metal exoskeleton underneath.

“Okay, fine,” I said, relenting. “But let’s first have a chat with the mouse. And then you can have a crack at Odelia and the others.”

“Great,” said Harriet, smiling now that she’d gotten her way. “Let me talk to the mouse first, though. I’m sure I can convince it to play ball.”

“What ball, Harriet?” asked Dooley, interested.

“Any ball!”

“You would expect that with four cats on the premises this mouse would have chosen another house to make its home,” said Brutus.

“Maybe mice are not that smart?” Dooley suggested.

“Oh, I think mice are very smart,” said Harriet. “Just look at Jerry. Jerry tricks Tom every time.”

We all fell silent. In feline circles mentioning Tom and Jerry is considered sacrilege. A cat consistently being bested by a silly little mouse? That show has given cats a bad name. It has made people see us as lazy, dumb, vindictive, vicious and downright nasty. No, Messrs. Hanna and Barbera have a lot to answer for, let me tell you that.

We all moved back into the house, single file, then passed through the pet flap. As usual I was the last one to pass through. There’s a silent understanding among the Poole household cats that I always walk through the pet flap last. I’m big-boned, you see, and sometimes the flap refuses to cooperate with my particular bone structure. And as this impedes the free passage of my fellow cats, I’m always last. It was so now, and wouldn’t you know it? I got stuck just as I tried to squeeze my midsection through that darn flap.

“Um, you guys?” I now called out. “Can you give a cat a helping paw here, please?”

“Oh, Max, not again!” cried Harriet, sounding exasperated.

“It’s not my fault Odelia keeps feeding us primo grub!” I said.

We’d recently been catnapped, Dooley, Harriet, Brutus and I. In fact the entire cat population of Hampton Cove had been catnapped, and after that, to add insult to injury, we’d all been forced to eat vegetarian for a while, on account of the fact that the local populace had discovered they’d been fed cat and even human meat for a long time, an important ingredient in the local delicacy, the Duffer. The Duffer is—or was—a popular sausage, and its creators had taken a few liberties with food safety laws. As a consequence all of Hampton Cove had gone on a veggie kick, which hadn’t lasted long.

Also, Vena, who is our veterinarian, and who seems to hate cats so much she likes to poke us with needles and pump us full of something called a vaccine, warned Odelia that cats shouldn’t be deprived their daily ration of meat, or else they’ll get sick and die.

Odelia had quickly seen the error of her ways and had started feeding us those wholesome nuggets of cat food again, kibble and pouches, and as a consequence I may have overindulged.

Or it could be a malfunction of the pet flap, of course. My money was on the latter.

Dooley took one of my paws, while Brutus took a firm grip on the other, and Harriet assumed the stance of the drill instructor that deep in her heart of hearts she is.

“And… pull!” she screamed. “And pull! And pull. Harder! Put your backs into it!”

“He’s not moving!” Brutus cried.

“That’s because you’re not pulling hard enough, soldier!” she bellowed. “Pull! Pull!”

“I’m pulling as hard as I can!” said Dooley.

“Max, suck in that tummy. Suck it in!” Harriet yelled. “Suck! It! In!”

“Yeah, suck in that flab, Max!” said Brutus, panting from the exertion.

“I’ll have you know I don’t have any flab,” I said haughtily, though it’s hard to be haughty when you’re stuck in a pet flap and two cats are pulling at your front paws with all of their might. “I’m as lean as that bowl of lean, mean turkey I just gobbled up.”

“Less talk, more action!” Harriet was saying. “And pull and pull and pull!”

“I think the problem is that this here darn pet flap has shrunk,” I said.

My two benefactors decided to take a short break and let go of my paws.

“Nonsense. You’re fat, Max,” said Harriet, never one to mince words. “You should go on a diet again.”

“Pretty sure it’s the flap,” I said. “This door is made of wood, and everyone knows wood contracts when it gets cold and wet. It must have contracted. Like, a lot.”

“How would this door get wet?” asked Brutus, puzzled.

“It gets really humid at night, Brutus,” I pointed out. “Cold and humid.”

“The sun has been up for hours. It’s warm outside, Max,” said Harriet. “So that theory doesn’t hold water, I’m afraid. If anything that door should have expanded.”

“Someone should go to the other side and push,” said Dooley, not taking his eye off the ball, which in this case was me. “One of us could push while the other pulls.”

“And how can we go to the other side when Max is blocking the exit?” asked Brutus.

“Maybe we can push from this side,” said Harriet. “Make him pop out like a cork.”

So the three of them put their paws on my face and started pushing!

“This isn’t working,” Brutus said after a while. “He’s not moving an inch.”

It wasn’t a pleasant experience, three cats putting their paws on me and poking me in the snoot with all of their might. And Brutus was right. I wasn’t budging. On the contrary. I had a feeling I was more stuck now than I was at the start of the proceedings.

And as we all contemplated our next move, I suddenly noticed we had a visitor. A very large mouse had casually strolled up to us and now sat watching the events as they unfolded before its pink whiskered nose.

“So this is what you cats are up to when you’re not sleeping or eating or pooping, huh?” said the mouse with a slight grin on its face.

“We do a lot more than sleeping, eating and pooping,” said Harriet.

“Oh, sure,” said the mouse. “You’re also supposed to be chasing me, but I see very little of that going on.”

“We’re not chasing you because we choose not to chase you,” said Harriet. “Because we’re all felinists at heart and respect the sanctity of rodent life.”

“Yeah, we’re vicious mouse hunters,” said Brutus, unsheathing a gleaming claw. “The only reason we haven’t hunted you down is because we’re not into that kind of stuff.”

The mouse was studying its own teensy tiny claws, though, clearly not impressed. “You probably don’t even know what those claws are for, you big brute.”

“I know what these are for,” said Brutus, and now showed his fangs, then even managed to make a hissing sound that sounded very menacing and convincing to me.

The mouse produced a slight smile. “You huff and you puff but you can’t even get through that silly little pet door, so forgive me for not being too impressed, fellas.”

And with that parting shot, the mouse started back in the direction of the basement stairs, which apparently was its new home. At least according to the Pooles.

“We should probably…” Brutus began, giving Harriet a hesitant look.

“Talk to it!” said Harriet. “We agreed to talk to the mouse so let’s talk to the mouse.”

Brutus cleared his throat. “Um, mouse? Come back here, will you?”

“That’s Mr. Mouse to you, cat,” said the mouse, glancing over his shoulder.

“Um, the thing is…” Brutus darted another glance at Harriet, who gave him an encouraging nod. “We’ve actually been asked to tell you that you’re no longer welcome in this house. So if you could please move to some other house that would be really nice.”

“Well done,” Harriet said with an approving smile. “Very felinistic.”

But the mouse laughed. “You’re telling me to take a hike? You’ve got some nerve, cat.”

“We happen to live here,” said Brutus, stiffening visibly. “And as the co-inhabitants of this house we have every right to ask you to clear out and to clear out right speedily, too.”

“Well said, sugar muffin,” said Harriet, who seemed to be hardening her stance. Whereas before she’d been a strong defender of rodent rights, she was now eyeing the mouse with a lot more frost than a rodent rights activist should.

“Well, for your information, I like this place, so I’m staying put. And there’s nothing you or your dumb chum cat cronies can do about it. So buzz off already, will you?”

“Oh, we’ll see about that,” said Brutus, finally losing his equanimity. And then he performed the feline equivalent of rolling up his sleeves: he rolled his shoulders and extended his claws. I would have helped him square off against this obnoxious little mouse, but unfortunately I was still stuck in the pet flap, and being stuck has a strangely debilitating effect on one’s fighting spirit. Still, he had my most vocal support.

“You don’t scare me, cat,” said the mouse. “If you want a fight, I’ll give you a fight.”

“Don’t be stupid, mouse,” said Harriet, the master diplomat. “We’re ten times bigger than you. We can squash you like a bug, and we will if you don’t get out of our house.”

The mouse wasn’t impressed. “It’s true that you’re bigger than me, cat. But you’re also a lot dumber. Besides, much of that size is flab, like your fat red friend who’s stuck in that pet flap can tell you, and why should I be scared of a bunch of hairy butterballs? Now if there’s nothing more, I’ve got things to do, mice to see, so cheerio, suckers.”

And with these fighting words, he was off, scurrying back to wherever he came from.

He left four cats fuming. Or actually one cat fuming (Brutus), one cat wondering how to get out of the pet flap (yours truly), one cat counting on his digits how much bigger than a mouse a cat could possibly be (Dooley) and one cat looking like the Terminator about to go full metal menace (Harriet).

“Oh, I’ll show that little jerk what’s what,” Harriet hissed. Apparently rodent rights were suddenly the furthest thing from her mind. And as she stalked off in the direction of the basement stairs, Brutus right behind her, I wondered how I was ever going to get out of my pet flap predicament now.

“I think we’re actually thirty times bigger than a mouse, Max, or maybe even more. What do you think?”

“I think I want to get out of here,” I said.

“I think the situation will take care of itself.”

“You mean the mouse situation?”

“No, your situation. If you simply stay stuck for a while and don’t eat, you’ll automatically get thinner and get unstuck before you know it.”

And having delivered this message of hope, he plunked down on his haunches, and gave me a smile, entirely ready to keep me company while I accomplished this rare feat.

“It will take me days to slim down and get unstuck, though,” I said, pointing out the fatal flaw in his reasoning.

“I don’t think so. A lot of weight gain is fluids,” said Dooley. “So the key is to get dehydrated.” He nodded wisely. “You need to sweat, Max, and sweat a lot. And then all of that extra weight will simply melt away.”

And to show me he wasn’t all talk and no action, he got up, jumped on top of the kitchen table, flicked the thermostat to Maximum, and jumped back down again.

“There,” he said, satisfied with a job well done. “It’s going to turn into a sauna in here and you’ll be free before you know it.” He gave me a reassuring pat on the head.

Odd, then, that I wasn’t entirely reassured.

Chapter Two

Over at the office, Tex was watering his spider plant while listening to the radio. He’d turned up the volume, as the song that was playing happened to be one of his favorites. It was a golden oldie from that old master of melody Elton John. And as he sang the lyrics, exercising the old larynx, he suddenly realized how much he actually liked to sing.

“Humpty Dumpty doo wah doo wah,” he warbled softly.

The spider plant was one of his favorites. He’d gotten it as a present from his daughter a couple of years ago, after she’d been in to see him about a suspicious mole that had developed on the back of her hand, and had told him his office looked dark and gloomy and could use sprucing up. In the week that followed she’d assumed the role of head of the sprucing-up committee and had redesigned his office, making it lighter and airier.

It had been her idea to put in the skylight, and to throw out the old rug that had developed a strange odor after years of use. She’d had the original wood floor sanded and refinished so it shone when the sun cast its golden rays through the new skylight, and as a finishing touch had thrown out his old furniture and replaced it with a nice and modern-looking desk and chair. Now the office didn’t look like it belonged to a nineteenth-century sawbones but a modern young physician hip with the times.

“Doo wah doo wah,” he sang, louder now that he decided that he had a pretty great singing voice. “Doo wah doo wee wee weeh…”

On the other side of the door, Vesta was watching a YouTube video on her phone. There were no patients in the waiting room, and no patients in with Tex either, so she had all the time in the world. But this video was something else. And as she watched, suddenly a horrible noise intruded on her viewing pleasure. It sounded like a cross between the howl of a wolf and the yowl of a cat in heat. It took her a while to trace the source of the sound, and when she had, she got up and marched over to the door.

Without knocking, she opened it and stuck her head in.

“Tex? Are you all right?” she asked, showing a solicitude she rarely displayed when dealing with her son-in-law.

“I’m fine,” said Tex, looking up from watering his plant. “Why?”

She shook her head. “The weirdest thing. I thought I heard someone being mangled by a timber wolf but now it stopped.”

“You’re imagining things, Vesta, cause I heard nothing.”

“Yeah, that must be it,” she murmured, then made to close the door, only to push it open again. “Say, have you ever considered we may be about to be annihilated, Tex?”

“Mh?” he said, looking up from plucking something from his precious plant.

“The coming apocalypse,” she explained. “I was just watching a great video about the coming apocalypse and what we should do to get ready for when it comes.”

“What apocalypse?” he asked, getting up and staring at whatever he’d plucked from his plant.

“The one that’s about to start. There’s a nuclear holocaust about to happen, Tex, or hadn’t you noticed?”

“No, actually I hadn’t. What nuclear holocaust?”

“Well, it only stands to reason that with so many nuclear weapons in the world someone is gonna launch one any second now, and that someone may be a rogue agent, or it may be a rogue nation, or it may be a rogue organization. Something rogue at any rate. And then there’s the tsunamis that are about to rock our world, not to mention the volcanoes that are about to go active, and the rising oceans. We need to get ready, Tex. It’s imperative we build ourselves a bunker and store it with enough food to survive this thing.”

He gave her a strange look. “Vesta, there’s not going to be a nuclear holocaust. The people in charge will never let that happen. And as far as those oceans and those volcanoes are concerned, I’m sure it will all be fine.”

“All be fine! You sound like those animals that stick their heads in the sand! Kangaroos? No, ostriches.” She pointed a finger at him. “You, Tex, are an ostrich, and it’s because of ostriches that things are quickly going to hell in a handbasket.”

“Uh-huh,” he said, not sounding all that interested. “What do you think these are?” he asked, staring at his own finger like the ding-dong he was. “Is that a bug, you think, or a fungus?”

“Oh, you’re a fungus, Tex,” she said, and slammed the door shut.

It didn’t matter. Even though Tex was a lost cause, that didn’t mean she couldn’t take matters into her own hands. Wasn’t that always the case, though? Didn’t it always come down to simple, honest, hard-working women to get the job done?

So she got behind her desk, took pen and paper in hand, and started scribbling down a list of things she needed to get cracking on to survive this coming nuclear winter.

***

“It’s been in there an awfully long time,” said Uncle Alec, staring at the skeleton.

“And how long is an awfully long time?” asked Odelia. “In your expert opinion?”

“Heck, honey, I’m just a cop, not a coroner. So I have absolutely no idea.”

“I’ll bet it’s been in there a thousand years,” said Marge. “Look at the state it’s in.”

“I doubt it’s been a thousand years, though, Marge,” said Chase. “This house isn’t a thousand years old.”

“So what? It could have been there from way before this house was ever built.”

“Impossible, mom,” said Odelia. “It’s in the wall, so it was put there after the house was built.”

“Oh,” said Marge. “You think?”

“I’m not an expert either, but yeah, that’s what I think.”

“Abe should be here any minute now,” said Alec, checking his watch. “We’ll know more when he arrives.”

Abe Cornwall was the county coroner, and as such more qualified than any of the small band of onlookers who now stood gathered around the skeleton, staring at it as if hoping it would magically reveal its secrets somehow.

“I still don’t have water,” Marge pointed out. Her initial shock had worn off.

Odelia placed a hand on her mother’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, mom. As soon as the body is taken out, I’m sure the plumber will be able to get the water running again.”

“Yeah, but the laundry still needs to be done, and I need to cook, and I wanted to mop the floors—though now with all these people running in and out of the basement I guess it’s not much use anyway.”

“If you want you and Dad and Gran can eat at ours tonight.”

“Thanks,” said Marge. “But what about showers tomorrow morning?”

“You can take a shower at ours, as well.”

“Thanks, sweetie,” said Marge, biting her lip nervously.

“So Gwayn took a whack at this wall and this skeleton popped up,” said Alec, jotting down a couple of notes.

“Yeah, Gwayn figured there was an issue with the connection to the water main—a leak maybe—so he wanted to take a closer look before he called in the people from the water company. And that’s when this old skeleton suddenly popped up,” said Marge.

Gwayn Partington had gone home already. Or, as was more likely, to his favorite bar.

“Clothes are mostly gone, too,” said Alec. “Though they look like a man’s clothes to me.”

The skeleton had a few rags draped around itself. It was hard to see what they’d been, though, in spite of what Odelia’s uncle said. Everything looked old and ragged.

“Look, just get it out of here, will you?” said Marge. “So I can call Gwayn and he can fix my plumbing and I have water again.” And with these words she moved up the stairs.

“So how long do you really think it’s been there, Uncle Alec?” asked Odelia.

“Hard to say, sweetie. These houses were built in the fifties, so it has to be less than that, and bodies take a little while to turn into skeletons, so it can’t be recent, either. But like I said, it’s up to the experts to tell us the age of the body, or how it died.”

“And how it got stuck inside this wall,” Chase added.

“But it didn’t get stuck inside the wall, did it?” said Odelia. “Someone put it there.”

Alec moved a little closer and stuck his head in to look up. “Yeah, doesn’t look like a chimney or anything, so it’s definitely not some wannabe Santa who got stuck.”

“Ha ha,” said Odelia. “Very funny.”

“No, it happens,” said Alec, retracting his head. “I once heard about a case where a guy went missing. Years later a house in the same neighborhood was sold and when the builders came in to do some remodeling they found a body stuck inside the old chimney. Turns out he’d been burgling the house and had gotten stuck and died.”

“You know what this means, right?” said Odelia.

“What?”

“This is a murder case.”

“A murder case!” said Alec.

“Of course. What else could it be?”

“Anything! A very elaborate suicide. An accident. Um…”

“It’s murder, and whoever put this poor person in there managed to get away with it for all this time.”

“Oh, don’t tell me you think we should…” Alec began.

“Investigate who killed him or her? Of course. It doesn’t matter if it happened yesterday or fifty years ago, we need to get to the bottom of this.”

“But—”

“There’s people out there who lost a brother, a sister or a mother or a father. And who never had closure. People who want to know what happened, and who deserve answers, and to see justice done. And the murderer is probably still out there, happy they got away with it. Well, I would like you to promise me you’re not going to let that happen. That you’re going to do whatever it takes to bring this person to justice.”

Copyright © 2019 by Nic Saint